The House on Tuesday passed a bill that addresses the rise in violence and discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lower chamber approved the legislation, called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, in a 364-62 vote.
The bill directs the Department of Justice to expedite the review of coronavirus-related hate crimes, provide guidance to state and local governments to improve public reporting on hate crimes, and raise awareness about hate crimes during the public health crisis.
Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York, who championed the bill, said it makes clear that hate against Asian Americans is “unacceptable” and “will not be tolerated.” The legislation also demonstrates that “Congress has the Asian American community’s back,” she added.
“An attack on the Asian American community is an attack on all of us,” Meng said during a press conference ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
The bill’s passage comes after the Senate overwhelmingly approved it 94-1 last month in a rare bipartisan effort. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri was the lone “no” vote, arguing it was “too broad.”
The federal government has been under pressure to respond to the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. The nonprofit group, Stop AAPI Hate, has reported 6,603 incidents of physical assault, shunning, verbal and online harassment, and civil-rights violations against AAPI communities in the US from March 2020 to March 2021.
Meng and fellow Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii introduced the legislation in March in the wake of a mass shooting at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area that killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. The deadly attack sparked national outrage over the uptick in anti-Asian violence coinciding with the spread of COVID-19 across the country and former President Donald Trump elevating terms such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.”
“Those of Asian descent have been blamed and scapegoated for the outbreak of COVID-19 and as a result Asian Americans have been beaten, slashed, spat on, and even set on fire and killed,” Meng said on Tuesday. “We are here today to say that Congress is taking action.”
As a second-generation Chinese American, I’ve always felt disconnected from Chinese culture – I struggle with the language, am unfamiliar with its customs and traditions, and feel like an impostor in a Chinese body when interacting with first-generation immigrants.
But I also constantly feel alienated in America. Despite having lived in the US my entire life, I can’t help but feel like a foreigner in my own hometown, where people look at my face and immediately see me as something otherly. My whole life, I’ve identified with the label of “American” as much as I’ve identified with “chink,” “gook,” and “virus.”
The rapid rise in anti-Asian violence and the fear it’s instilled in recent months has been a brutal reminder to millions of us of what it means to exist as an Asian in America, and it’s left us in a state of overwhelming grief and anger.
In light of these hate crimes, Asians ranging from celebrities to politicians to ordinary people have spoken out against the increasingly rampant discrimination we face. This is exactly what we should be doing. Given the widespread reluctance to acknowledge anti-Asian racism, even among Asians ourselves, we need to make our voices heard.
But at the same time, however, Asian American advocacy is far too often predicated on rhetoric that’s implicitly anti-Black.
Instead of uplifting us, this harms all people of color and pits us against one another, thereby upholding the white supremacy that oppresses and dehumanizes us.
Growing up in the US, I’ve been constantly surrounded by the stereotypes associated with being Asian.
We’re purportedly all smart, hardworking, quiet, and obedient. I took pride in hearing friends, teachers, and family members, Asian and non-Asian alike, apply these characteristics to my own race. It felt like a compliment; Asians were all high-achieving, so I automatically was too.
When I was told that stereotypes were harmful at a young age, I wondered how this could be possible. After all, what harm could come out of someone believing I was intelligent and hardworking?
The narrative that hard work and intelligence – and, by extension, success and prosperity – is an inherent part of the Asian identity not only veils the discrimination we face, but also perpetuates racism against other groups. The assumption is that Asians – the “model minority” – can achieve high levels of success in academia and the workforce despite being people of color, so if Black people fail to do the same, it’s because of their own inherent shortcomings rather than systemic barriers.
Because being perceived as hardworking doesn’t seem offensive or harmful at face value, many Asians buy straight into this narrative, resulting in a subtle sense of anti-Blackness that often manifests itself in Asian American advocacy.
We shouldn’t treat racism like a competition
When I first heard about the targeted shootings of Asian women in Atlanta several weeks ago, I instantly thought of the tragic murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Beyond that, however, I was also reminded of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans who were unjustly murdered.
Considering the racial unrest in the US this past year, it can be easy to make this connection between anti-Asian and anti-Black violence; it’s a reminder that the oppression of one race is tied to that of other races and reaffirms the need to stand in solidarity with other people of color.
However, we need to be careful that these connections don’t turn into comparisons.
In response to skyrocketing anti-Asian violence, some people have adopted “Asian Lives Matter” as a catch-all phrase to condemn racism against Asians. Of course, our lives do matter, but using this phrase is fallacious in a way similar to “All Lives Matter” – it’s not untrue, but it’s a direct response to “Black Lives Matter” that attempts to derail our focus on anti-Black oppression and shift it to a different group. The history of racism in the US is far too nuanced for one marginalized group to simply replace another, even if it’s just in a saying or hashtag.
Our goal should not be to replace or diminish the Black Lives Matter movement but to simultaneously advocate for Black and Asian Americans. Alternative hashtags like #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate accomplish this by condemning anti-Asian racism without co-opting a movement that isn’t ours.
That being said, this underlying sense of competition – or, as activist Elizabeth Martínez once called it, “Oppression Olympics” – spans far greater than the use of a hashtag. Some Asians have been quick to criticize Black Lives Matter activists for not explicitly acknowledging anti-Asian violence. If activists can advocate for Black people, they reason, then why can’t they advocate for Asians?
Instead of uplifting ourselves and shedding light on our struggles, this reasoning insinuates that we are only owed support because Black people also received it. It forces us to spend our energy competing with one another rather than truly addressing white supremacy. It unravels the solidarity between Asian and Black activists and downplays the significant work Black civil rights activists have done to benefit people of color throughout history.
Activism is not a zero-sum game; fighting anti-Black racism benefits Asians and vice versa.
To truly contribute to Asian activism, here’s what we do.
Let’s focus on uplifting the voices of Asian Americans. Rather than place blame on the Black Lives Matter movement for occupying so much attention, let’s take inspiration from the decades of hard work activists have done to bring such attention to racial issues.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Tuesday that the Justice Department would review how to tackle anti-Asian violence within the next 30 days.
The review was announced in a letter from Garland obtained by CBS Chief Justice and Homeland Security Correspondent Jeff Pegues and shared on Twitter by his colleague, CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Weijia Jiang.
Garland cited the DOJ’s efforts to prosecute Ku Klux Klan members in its early history, saying, “One hundred and fifty years later, hate crimes persist and continue to have a toxic effect on our society.”
He said the Justice Department would consider how it could better track the reporting of hate crimes and hate incidents, prioritize criminal investigations, utilize civil enforcement authorities to ensure bias does not arise, and equip US Attorney’s Offices with resources to protect against hate.
“While this effort remains ongoing, the Department will seek justice for the victims of hate-fueled mass murderers we have seen too many times in the past several years – killings that have shaken our communities, torn at our social fabric, and undercut our most basic values,” Garland said in the statement.
Garland added that he would “continue to deploy” community outreach organizations and civil enforcement power to help prevent further hate crimes. That would include working with state and local authorities to provide bolstered resources to both investigate and prosecute hate crimes and prevent potential hate events before they occur.
In mid-March 2021, a mass shooting targeting massage parlors and spas in the Atlanta area that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, brought the rising trend of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes into the national spotlight and onto the radar of Congress, the Biden White House, and law enforcement agencies like the DOJ.
Insider’s Ryan Barber recently reported that Garland, an experienced federal prosecutor and former longtime judge, is also aiming to restore morale and boost a sense of camaraderie at the DOJ following the tumultuous events of 2020 and 2021, culminating in the January 6 insurrection on the US Capitol.
They include “reinstating and reinvigorating” the White House’s work with federal agencies to focus on hate crimes. To that end, Biden is redirecting some funds from the American Rescue Plan to create a new $49.5 million grant program to help Asian-American domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and also establishing a new COVID-19 Equity Task Force focused on xenophobia and health disparities.
“Our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit,” President Biden declared in Atlanta last Friday. “We have to speak out. We have to act.”
While President Biden’s condemnation of the murder of eight people in Georgia, including six Asian-American women, is welcome, it misses the mark in an important way.
Both the speech and the statement issued by the White House failed to acknowledge that Washington’s over-the-top language about China is fueling an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, which boomerangs in the form of violence against Asian-Americans. If there was any doubt that American foreign policy is domestic policy, these shootings should quell them.
To see how toxic the American discourse on China has become, one only needs to look at what transpired in Anchorage last week and the ongoing congressional debate on the annual Pentagon bill. The vitriol that was exchanged by American and Chinese officials in Alaska was unprecedented for its harsh and undiplomatic tenor, and will likely make cooperation on critical areas such as pandemics and climate change that much more difficult.
But when seen in the context of bipartisan efforts in government over the past five years to label China as a threat to America and the US-led world order, the debacle in Anchorage is not that surprising.
Neither document mentions how the US government would advance legitimate national security interests without creating an environment of hatred against Asian-Americans, similar to how the Muslim American community faced retributive violence after 9/11.
In Congress, members regularly use China to show that they are tough on national security without any regard for how their out-of-control language could shape American perceptions of Asians.
For example, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) tweeted that “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States” in response to the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus’ call to cut the Defense budget and channel resources to under-resourced areas such as global health. Such overt China bashing makes it nearly impossible to have a rational debate about areas of cooperation between the world’s two largest economies.
The truth is that what happened in Georgia is the latest manifestation of hatred borne out of racially charged language deployed by a growing number of public officials on both sides of the aisle to cast blame on China, and indirectly, all East Asians and Asian-Americans.
Rep. Wittman, the top House recipient of campaign contributions from arms manufacturers and military contractors, offers perhaps one of the egregious examples of stoking fear and anxiety in order to advance a military-centered US foreign policy toward China. But he is hardly alone.
Rather, Rep. Wittman is a part of an ecosystem that reinforces and normalizes such extreme views. And by not addressing this vicious cycle, government leaders are distracting the public from addressing the cause, rather than the symptoms, of violence against Americans of Asian descent.
The tragic incident in Georgia is only one of nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes against Asian-Americans since terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” have become commonplace in Washington.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes targeting Asians rose by nearly 150% in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020, when China was routinely blamed by presidential and congressional candidates for America’s ailments.
Given the barrage of anti-China language in government and media, why would anyone be surprised that Asian-Americans have become collateral damage?
One person from Milpitas, California described experiencing verbal assault this way: “I was shopping when a man started making faces at me. When I asked him what was wrong, he said ‘We delisted your companies, we shipped back your international students, when do you ship out?”
The message is clear: Anyone who looks Chinese is suspect and should be expelled from this country.
Another person in College Park, Maryland reported the use of xenophobic language in the classroom: “One of my professors was talking about the public health response to COVID-19 during a virtual lecture and explicitly called it the “China Virus.” “We’ve got to be very careful about that country, and what they’d do to us,'” he told the class.
This, despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s warnings against stigmatizing people of Asian descent for COVID-19. The World Health Organization has also warned against naming diseases to certain populations or nationalities as far back as 2015.
Asian-American discrimination has a long history, dating back to 1871 when 17 Chinese immigrant men were lynched by a mob in Los Angeles. But the current situation is particularly explosive due to the hypersensitive domestic environment in which Americans are looking for someone to blame for the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic.
In response to the shooting in Georgia, President Biden has called on members of Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Grace Meng, as a way to expedite government response to hate crimes.
This is a welcome move but falls woefully short of what is needed given the magnitude of the problem at hand. A more holistic, self-reflective strategy that connects the dots between foreign policy and domestic policy is urgently needed.
There must be more discussions among national-security experts with domestic-policy experts about the scope of the challenge at hand.
Even if the Hirono-Meng bill passed the House and got enough Republican senators’ votes to pass in the Senate (a high bar), it would not address the underlying motivations for these hate crimes. Members of Congress who deploy zero-sum language on China to justify a bloated Pentagon budget must be called out and held responsible for the secondary order impact that their rhetoric is having on Asian-Americans.
The current situation has grave national-security implications for the federal government as well.
The Biden administration’s interim National Security Strategic Guidance recognizes that the United States confronts a wide range of challenges, from a global pandemic to a deepening climate emergency. But it also assumes the worst about China’s intentions, which will make constructive engagement between two of the world’s largest economies difficult.
The Quincy Institute presents an alternative approach to thinking about China and East Asia, one that emphasizes stability and regional cooperation, and diplomacy over military dominance. In other words, there are other ways to manage US-China relations without marching into war.
Thirty-nine years ago, at the height of the auto trade war with Japan, a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. The people who killed him thought he was Japanese. Rather than paying lip service to Asian-Americans while perpetuating grossly oversimplified narratives about China, President Biden and the Congress should stop demonizing China. They must stop using China fear tactics to justify more military spending.
As Rep. Marilyn Strickland stated on the House floor, “Words matter. Leadership matters.” It is time for American policymakers on national security and domestic civil liberties to work hand-in-hand to create policies that actually help Americans rather than pit them against one another.
Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute.
Then-President Donald Trump’s first tweet about a “Chinese virus” triggered a rise in anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter, a study has found.
A peer-reviewed study published last Wednesday by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that the March 16, 2020, tweet was directly responsible for a major increase in anti-Asian hashtags.
Trump went on to use the term repeatedly on Twitter and in person throughout the pandemic. At the time of his tweet, there were 153,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and several US states had introduced emergency measures.
The researchers analyzed nearly 700,000 tweets that used either “#covid19” or “#chinesevirus” between March 9 to March 23. They said that 50% of the tweets that used “#chinesevirus,” and 20% of tweets that used “#covid19” showed anti-Asian sentiment.
“When comparing the week before March 16 [the date of Trump’s tweet] to the week after, there was a significantly greater increase in anti-Asian hashtags associated with #chinesevirus compared with #covid19,” they wrote.
More Asian Americans are buying firearms to protect themselves amid a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Forbes.
“Before, there was never gun culture in the Asian community. But after the pandemic and all the hate crime going on, there are more Asians buying guns to defend themselves,” Jimmy Gong, the owner of New York-based Jimmy’s Sport Shop, was quoted as saying in the Forbes report.
During the pandemic, gun sales have doubled for Gong. About half of his business derives from Asian Americans, who also buy a lot of pepper spray, he told the outlet.
According to the report, gun stores across the US are also seeing an increasing number of Asian Americans purchasing firearms for self-defense purposes. Poway Weapons & Gear in California saw a 20% increase in Asian American first-time buyers over the past year compared with the year before that, said Danielle Jaymes, the store’s general manager.
Six of the eight people killed in the Atlanta shootings on Tuesday were Asian women, although no motive for the shootings has been established. Robert Aaron Long, 21, has been named by police as the suspect in all eight deaths, which took place at spas. He was arrested after a car chase south of Atlanta in Crisp County, around 150 miles away.
As Anti-Asian rhetoric increased during the pandemic, former President Donald Trump was criticised for referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” The World Health Organization has urged people not to use that term, along with several others.
The US has seen a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year, sparking calls for law enforcement and leaders in Washington to ramp up efforts to combat discrimination against the Asian community.
Between March 2020 and late February 2021, there were roughly 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents reported across the US, with 68% coming from women, according to new data released by reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate. Women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more than men, the report said.
Though there’s been a significant rise in discrimination against the Asian community in the past year, it’s also nothing new. This brand of hatred is part of a long tradition in the US. Indeed, anti-Asian racism has played a major role in the American story.
In the 19th century, xenophobia and nativist sentiments drove the US to adopt what was effectively a whites-only immigration policy. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese workers from coming to the US and blocked Chinese nationals in the US from becoming citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law in US history that explicitly prohibited immigration on the basis of race.
“Beginning in 1882, the United States stopped being a nation of immigrants that welcomed foreigners without restrictions, borders or gates,” Erika Lee, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said in her book At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During The Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. “In the process, the very definition of what it meant to be an ‘American’ became even more exclusionary.” America became a “gatekeeping nation” with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Lee said.
The Chinese Exclusion Act is just one example of the myriad forms of discrimination people of Asian descent have faced in the US. During World War II, for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing over 100,000 people of Japanese descent into detention camps in the US.
The order was largely motivated by anti-Japanese sentiments after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans in the western US faced suspicion and rampant discrimination, even as many in the community served in the war – and in many cases were thrown into some of the most dangerous missions in Europe.
Of the people pushed into these internment camps during the war, roughly 80,000 were US citizens. The order also impacted some German and Italian Americans, but the vast majority of detainees were of Japanese descent.
The US government has made efforts to apologize for discriminatory actions against the Asian community, including the internment of Japanese Americans, but the hateful sentiments that contributed to these moves persist. Understanding this history could be crucial to thwarting the ongoing discrimination against Asians in the US.