WASHINGTON – Lawmakers called for action in the aftermath of a shooting in Atlanta that left at least eight people dead, the majority of whom were Asian American, raising fears among top Asian American lawmakers about the shooter’s motivations amid a nationwide rise in hate incidents.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the “crimes are beyond terrifying, but it just brings home to so many Asian Americans that they are fearful of their lives and circumstances” as they faced both the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in hate incidents.
She said her group of lawmakers met with the Department of Justice to discuss a nationwide rise in hate incidents and “we are right now determining actions against AAPI hate.” She called for the passage of legislation to improve hate crime reporting and also for the establishment of a national day to speak out against anti-Asian American hate on March 26.
And Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the killings could spur legislation against hate crimes and for gun control. He is seeking Republican co-sponsors for legislation to create Justice Department grants aimed at improving reporting of hate crimes.
“This latest series of murders in Atlanta reflects a rising surge of hate crimes, particularly now directly against Asian Americans,” Blumenthal said. “Americans should be absolutely revolted and outraged, but more importantly, do something.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement, “answers are urgently needed to determine whether this deadly attack was a hate crime, and what can be done to prevent such an act from ever again happening.”
“Our entire nation must come together to speak out to Stop Asian Hate,” Pelosi said. Chu’s caucus would help lead efforts to “continue our work to end violence and bigotry in America,” Pelosi continued.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Asian American in the role, told reporters Wednesday that the killing “speaks to a larger issue, which is the issue of violence in our country and what we must do to never tolerate it and to always speak out against it.”
Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group tracking hate incidents, said it had received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents across the country since March 2020, compared with roughly 100 incidents annually in previous years. Advocates have sounded the alarm on recent violent attacks against Asian Americans, including the killing of 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee, and a recent increase in violence against senior citizens across the country.
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Congress was set to debate the issue this week. A House panel will hold a hearing Thursday addressing the rise in anti-Asian American hate and discrimination, its first on the issue since 1987, with testimony from lawmakers and advocates including Chu. An anti-hate crime bill proposed by Chu and other lawmakers is likely to come up during the hearing as lawmakers consider their response to the rise in hate.
The shootings could breathe new life into efforts to pass legislation addressing the hate incidents. Asian American lawmakers introduced legislation addressing the issue in the last Congress, but other than the House’s passage of a nonbinding resolution condemning anti-Asian bigotry and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic, no legislation was signed into law.
“We stand in full and complete solidarity with our Asian American brothers and sisters throughout the country, and we will not rest until we stop Asian hate in America,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a member of House Democratic leadership.
Democrats have blamed much of the increase in hate incidents on former President Donald Trump, citing his use of derisive terms for the coronavirus. Trump “clearly stoked the flames of xenophobia against AAPIs with his rhetoric,” Chu said, and ignored warnings from advocates and lawmakers and “doubled down” on the rhetoric.
The result was the shooting, the latest in a string of racially motivated incidents against Asians nationwide, Chu said.
“It’s clear the individuals were targeted because they are amongst the vulnerable in our country, immigrant Asian women,” Chu told reporters.
Local police said Wednesday that it was too soon to tell whether the killings at the massage parlors were racially motivated, saying they could have been linked to sex addiction.
Yale University Sociology Department chair Grace Kao, an expert on Asian American studies, said it was hard to disentangle race from the killings.
The shooter had targeted Asian American women, and given how “Asian American women have been viewed as exotic and feminine objects in U.S. mass media and suspected of prostitution from the earliest U.S. immigration restrictions,” the suspect could easily have viewed Asian American women in the same manner, she said.
“If you talk to the average Asian American woman, most of us have been subject to varying degrees of sexual harassment that targets our gender and racial identities,” Kao said. “They do not exist separately in the lives of individuals.”
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Contributing: Bart Jansen