Asian Americans were already living in fear. The Atlanta-area spa killings feel like a terrifying escalation for them

(CNN) — A restaurant was spray-painted with the message “Kung flu” in Texas. A travel agency employee in California was nearly blinded. An 84-year-old man from Thailand died after being shoved to the ground during his morning walk.

Many Asian Americans across the United States have been verbally harassed, spat on and injured for months in a “disgusting pattern of hate” that coincides with the Covid-19 pandemic. The killings of eight people, most of them Asian, at three spas in the Atlanta area Tuesday jolted a community already on edge, even as law enforcement has not yet determined a motive.

“We don’t know if this incident is racially motivated, but you have to understand the deep-seated fear that our community is experiencing,” said Cynthia Choi, one of the co-founders of Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition tracking violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“At this time, if there’s no proof, we can’t rule it out either because of the fact that Covid (19) was racialized, the fact that a majority of the victims were Asian women,” Choi added.

The shootings in the Atlanta area left the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community across the country in mourning and feeling that it was a devastating escalation to the violence that has become increasingly familiar for them.

“I feel like that just took it to a whole other extreme,” said Hanna Kim, a teacher from Novi, Michigan.

Kim, a 24-year-old Korean American, said she often feels like she has a target on her back. Last year, a parent wanted to remove one of her students from her second-grade class because Kim was Asian.

“Are people going to say things to me?” Kim said she often asks herself. “Are people going to avoid me because they think that for some reason I’m going to be the one that’s spreading the virus?”

Advocates and members of the AAPI community have said they have made changes to their daily routines out of caution. In a survey conducted by the Florida State University last year, more than half of the Asian Americans respondents said they opted to avoid certain places, observe their surroundings and were careful about language and wording they used.

Hours before the shootings, Stop AAPI Hate had released its latest data on the number of firsthand complaints they’ve received. The report was part of an effort to renew their call for concrete action against the targeted bigotry and discrimination.

Since March 19 last year, the group has received a total of 3,292 complaints from all 50 states and Washington, DC. In the last two months, there were at least 503 anti-Asian hate incidents reported, the group said.

The majority of the incidents — about 68% — were cases of verbal harassment, while shunning or avoidance made up about 20.5%. About 11% of the incidents involved physical assaults, according to Stop AAPI Hate.

State Rep. Sam Park, who was the first Asian American Democrat elected to the state house in Georgia in 2016, said there’s a “palpable fear and anxiety” in the Atlanta area following the shootings.

“Regardless of whether it was motivated by race, it was an attack against Asian American women, against members of our community, and of course we want to do everything that we can to protect everyone,” Park told CNN.

Across the entire Atlanta metro area, the Asian American and Pacific Islander population has grown significantly in recent years — mirroring the trend of the increasing and diversifying population across the state.

During the presidential and Senate runoff elections, AAPIs were a key part in campaign strategy. While AAPIs are a small share of the electorate in Georgia, the number of Asian American voters grew seven times as much as other racial and ethnic groups combined in the state.

The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum said some of its members in Atlanta were concerned about the safety of their families, including those who work in salons.

“We are appalled and devastated at the violence in Georgia that has taken eight lives, six of whom were Asian American women. We mourn with the families of these victims. We are horrified and continue to be concerned for the safety of our community members across the country as violence toward Asian Americans has escalated,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

In recent months, advocates, actors and officials have come together to denounce violence following a string of attacks in California and New York that left several people severely injured and some dead.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has previously spoken about the racism she and her family members in this country have faced, said the shootings have “frightened” all people.

“(K)nowing the increasing level of hate crimes against our Asian American brothers and sisters, we also want to speak out in solidarity with them and acknowledge that none of us should ever be silent in the face of any form of hate,” Harris said during a bilateral meeting with Irish officials commemorating St. Patrick’s Day.

Last week, President Joe Biden addressed the nation on the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 shutdown. During his speech, he condemned the hate and discrimination that Asian Americans have faced.

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