‘Racism is Not a Crime of Hate’: Baltimore Law Prof. Sheldon Lyke Reacts to Attacks on Asian Americans

This blog post by University of Baltimore School of Law Prof. Sheldon Bernard Lyke was first published in the Race and the Law Prof Blog.

Today marks the #StopAsianHate Virtual Day of Action and Healing. The mayor of Dallas, Eric Johnson, proclaimed March 26, 2021 as Stop Asian Hate Day. In the past couple of weeks, everyday people, activists, scholars, celebrities, and companies have filled social media feeds with messages of support for the Asian American community using the hashtag #StopAsianHate.  

These posts respond to the horrible March 16 Atlanta shootings where Robert Aaron Long murdered eight people—six of whom were women of Asian descent. The #StopAsianHate hashtag reveals the widespread belief that hate is the cause of racial violence against the Asian American community. Unfortunately, our collective focus on hate is a severe misunderstanding of the problem of racism in America.

Prof. Sheldon Bernard Lyke
Prof. Sheldon Bernard Lyke

Often, when we discuss racism, our conversations obfuscate the problem of race by discussing a perpetrator’s hate and individual motivation. For example, the national discussion immediately centered on whether the Atlanta shooter’s actions were racially motivated. The police seemed to offer an alternate explanation when they revealed that Long confessed that the shootings were an attempt to eliminate “temptation” caused by his “sexual addiction.” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta used the language of hate to describe the killings, saying that “Whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that the majority of the victims were Asian…It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop.” 

We do two things every time someone kills people of color, and the matter of race is an issue. First, we ask about the killer’s state of mind, “Was the killing racially motivated?” Second, we call for an end to hate. In this second action, we collectively perpetuate the myth that racism is the product of an individual’s hatred. The call to end hate stems from the belief that if we can remove hatred from individuals’ hearts, then racism will be solved. But this is false. Racism is a social problem in society—in our social practices, laws, norms, and collective values.  

We need to stop worrying about individual’s racist motivations and start having conversations about whether the ever-present racism in our society enables violent acts against people of color.  

Instead of focusing on Long’s “sex addiction” explanation for his murderous acts, why are we not more concerned with the racialized ways society has left women of Asian descent vulnerable to violence? For example, we live in a country where former President Trump has fueled anti-Asian sentiment and engaged in race-baiting by repeatedly referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu.” We live in a world that hypersexualizes the bodies of women of Asian descent. The killer’s supposed sexual addiction is likely related to a fetishization of the Asian woman, which promoted and allowed him to exploit these women (literally) to death. 

There is no denying that racial hatred exists. Individuals hold racist beliefs and views. What we need to remember, however, is that you do not need to know whether someone has racist opinions to ascertain whether their actions are racist. As a society, we should be more focused on naming and stopping racist acts than worrying about their motivation. Therefore, it might be more productive to stop focusing on hate in our conversations about racism. 

Racism does not require hatred to destroy the dreams, futures, and lives of people of color. Yet we keep going back to this same tired trope that we can somehow stop the hate that racism would end. Instead, racism is a problem that exists in the very structures, norms, and laws in our society. When we focus on hate, it distracts us from how racism exists in the big picture and instead fools us into thinking that racism is a problem that exists in individual people. 

Racism occurs when you live in a world that consistently and systematically situates people of color as the victims of exploitation and violence. That exploitation can happen when someone intentionally seeks to hurt people of color. It can occur when people of color fall through the cracks because the government refuses to protect them. It can also happen because we live in a world that sexually exploits bodies in racially specific ways. Each of these instances illustrates racism at work. 

Racism is not a crime of hate. Let’s remember that. Let us practice that when we talk and think about racism. 

About University of Baltimore School of Law

The University of Baltimore School of Law provides a rigorously practical education, combining doctrinal coursework, intensive writing instruction, nationally renowned clinics and community-based learning to ensure that its graduates are exceptionally well prepared to practice law.
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