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Lawmakers call for change in Covid rhetoric amid rise in violence against Asian Americans


Lawmakers and experts, testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Thursday, called for a shift in public rhetoric surrounding Covid-19 and foreign policy as well as passing new hate crime legislation to address rising discrimination and violence against Asian Americans.

The hearing was held after a deadly shooting spree in Georgia this week left 8 people dead, the majority of whom were Asian, deepening the sense of fear in many Asian American communities across the U.S.

“The conversation we are having today is long overdue, and it is vital that Congress shine a light on this issue,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “The last congressional hearing held on violence against Asian Americans was in 1987, in this subcommittee.”

“Thirty-four years is too long for Congress to leave this issue untouched,” Nadler said. “Our government must thoroughly investigate and swiftly address growing tensions and violence against the Asian American community, especially in light of the pandemic, because lives and livelihoods are truly at stake.”

Asian American elected officials, researchers and advocates shared testimonies outlining the treatment of Asians throughout U.S. history, personal experiences with racism, and calls to action.

“Combating hate is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif. “We can all agree that violence against any community should never be tolerated.”

Many panelists highlighted the impact of public officials blaming China for the Covid crisis and using offensive terms such as “kung flu” and “China virus” to describe the coronavirus, particularly by former President Donald Trump.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said perpetrators of anti-Asian violence and hate “were stoked by the words of former President Donald Trump, who sought to shift blame and anger away from his own botched response to the coronavirus.”

Experts testified that research shows a link between the words of leaders and hate incidents.

“These words matter, especially when they repeatedly came from the White House during the previous administration. Researchers have found that the anti-Asian rhetoric promoted by leaders directly correlated with a rise in racist incidents against Asian Americans,” said Erika Lee, professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota.

Lawmakers and advocates also discussed how U.S. foreign policy impacts the treatment of Asians in America.

“We do have legitimate concerns and geopolitical differences with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, but that is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. But if we are not careful, those differences will have consequences on our Asian American community,” said John Yang, president of civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Yang and other witnesses pointed to the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II and Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as examples in history when U.S. foreign policy directly impacted communities in America.

“We’ve heard in the past 24 hours many describe anti-Asian discrimination and racial violence as un-American. Unfortunately, it is very American,” Lee said.

Several panelists urged Congress to pass hate crime legislation introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, earlier this month.

The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act aims to address the rise in violence against Asian Americans through increasing oversight of Covid-related hate crimes at the Justice Department and providing support for state and local law enforcement agencies.

A study by advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate released Tuesday recorded 3,795 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. The group emphasizes that the tally represents just a fraction of the number of incidents experienced by Asian Americans across the country.

Other leaders noted that hate crime legislation does not necessarily address all forms of discrimination against Asian Americans.

“While many of the recent anti-Asian incidents may not meet legal definition of a hate crime, these attacks nonetheless create an unacceptable environment of fear and terror in Asian American communities,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.

At a press conference in Atlanta on Thursday morning, Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said: “Hate crime laws are not preventative. They are used in the aftermath as a prosecutorial tool.”

“That is why we have to address the xenophobia, the systemic racism. That is why we have to call out the usage of xenophobic language,” Nguyen said.

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