WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harrislanded in Atlanta on Friday hoping to listen to residents reeling from the shooting deaths of six Asian American women, an act of violence that has rocked Asian American communities already frustrated with a lack of action on a surge of pandemic-related discrimination.
Biden and Harris, the first Asian American vice president, are meetingwith Georgia state legislators and Asian American and Pacific Islander advocates to listen to their perspectives on the rise in hate incidents targeting Asian Americans.
“The president understands and knows the past year the community has been vilified and scapegoated and they’ve been attacked,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Georgia. “He spoke to the nation last week and made sure he lifted up the anti-AAPI hate they have seen… and called it out. This is what he will continue to do.”
Since the pandemic began a year ago, lawmakers like Reps. Judy Chu and Grace Meng have drawn attention to incidents of violence against Asian Americans across the country, called on Republicans to stop divisive rhetoric and pleaded with their colleagues to pass legislation to address the issue.
The shootings Tuesday, which killed eight, including the six Asian American women, intensified their concerns, which were on display at a Thursday hearing on anti-Asian American hate, the first such hearing in more than 30 years.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who was born in a Japanese American internment camp, said her family had “lived through the consequences” of normalizing anti-Asian hate. “Regular folks” had been “betrayed by their country,” she said, because of a “dangerous spiral of injustice.”
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“I have a responsibility and a moral obligation to speak out,” she said before a House Judiciary subcommittee. “There is a systemic problem here. And we are duty bound to stop racist ideas that escalate to physical threats.”
The president and vice president’s trip was arranged prior to the shooting rampage. The two were initially going to tout the benefits of the recently signed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, but the political rally portion of the trip has been postponed, the White House announced Thursday, “given the tragedy in Georgia.”
“They will meet with the state legislators and community advocates to hear about the impact of the incident on the community and to get their perspective on the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “The president will also offer his support for the AAPI community in Georgia and across the country, and talk about his commitment to combating xenophobia, intolerance and hate.”
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Biden signed executive orders addressing anti-Asian racism after taking office, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has held a meeting with Asian American lawmakers. But advocates want the Biden administration to do more than denounce the violence.
“Rhetoric alone will not solve this problem,” said Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. And Linda Ng, national president of the Asian American advocacy group OCA, told USA TODAY though the Biden administration had condemned the hate, and they appreciated the support, “this is not enough – our communities need and deserve more.”
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Ng said her group wanted better training for law enforcement to report and to respond to hate crimes and incidents, for the Biden administration to work with local communities, and for the Biden administration to send a “clear message” hate would not be tolerated.
Asian American advocates and lawmakers have long warned that rhetoric by political leaders including former President Donald Trump about COVID-19 could enflame discrimination against Asian Americans. Chu, a California Democrat and the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, noted how more than a year ago her group “began to sound the alarm” on anti-Asian stigma amid the pandemic. What started as “dirty looks and verbal assaults” escalated to attacks and violence against Asian Americans and now, almost a “daily tragedy,” she said.
Chu testified before Thursday’s panel and implored them to take up two pieces of legislation: the NO HATE Act and the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, both of which would aim to improve hate crime reporting. Chu also asked for a national day to speak out against anti-Asian hate to be held on March 26.
Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., said it was “heartbreaking” to hear about the attacks, saying “Combatting hate is not a partisan issue.” And Meng, D-N.Y., whose testimony was at times visibly emotional, pleaded for an end to divisive rhetoric, saying, “Our community is bleeding. We are in pain. And for the last year, we’ve been screaming out for help.” Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., said of the Biden administration, “as leaders, they should do more.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sent letters Thursday to the Department of Justice and the FBI asking them to bolster their investigations into hate crimes and incidents against Asian Americans.
“The U.S. Department of Justice must bring to bear the full force of its resources and authorities to investigate and prosecute these heinous crimes,” Duckworth told Garland. “Punishment must be swift, severe and certain to deter these purveyors of hate from acting on their prejudices in the form of violent threats and violent acts against Asian Americans.”
Lawmakers and advocates have expressed concerns about the underreporting of hate crimes because of Asian American immigrants’ unfamiliarity with English or mistrust of authority because of their upbringing in authoritarian countries.
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“I’m not naïve enough to think I’m going to convince all of you to stand up for us. Trust me, I’ve seen your voting records,” actor and advocate Daniel Dae Kim told lawmakers, “But I’m speaking more to the members to whom humanity still matters, more than partisan posturing. Because we need allies.”
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., the author of the NO HATE Act, said in a statement, “history tells us that many hate crimes will not be reported to the FBI, and it is more important than ever that Congress fix this problem.”
Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group tracking hate incidents, said it has received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents across the country since March 2020, compared with roughly 100 incidents a year in previous years.