President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris moved to reassert control over America’s bully pulpit Friday, decrying acts of violence against Asian Americans after a year in which former President Donald Trump inflamed racist attitudes by referring countless times to the coronavirus as “Kung Flu” and the “China virus.”
Condemning the permissive culture of scapegoating and vitriol that Trump helped create – without mentioning him by name – Biden and Harris called attention to the alarming rise in racist incidents during their visit to Atlanta, promising to focus their energy on halting those kinds of verbal and physical attacks days after the shocking murders of eight people at Atlanta area spas – six of whom were Asian women.
in their solemn speeches at Emory University, Biden and Harris were reclaiming one of the central roles of recent American presidents, which is not only to convey empathy after a tragic incident like the shootings Tuesday, but also to provide moral clarity on matters of race, said CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali. That responsibility was one that Trump repeatedly shirked – from his moral equivalency about the protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the way he turned a blind eye to rise the in anti-Asian attacks last year.
“A president is uniquely positioned to help cut through the prejudice and dispel some of the fears,” while reminding Americans of the “better angels” of their natures, Naftali said. “Calling out racism isn’t a partisan act. And I believe those who see it as a partisan act, don’t understand the nature of racism in America.”
After what Biden described as a “heart-wrenching” listening session with lawmakers and leaders of the Asian American Pacific Islander community, Harris – the first woman of South Asian descent to be vice president – pointedly alluded to Trump when she noted that violence has increased at the same time that “we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans” and “spreading this kind of hate.”
She also used her speech to acknowledge the dark history of racism in America toward people of Asian descent – from the discrimination against Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad to the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Both Biden and Harris also sought to illuminate the intimidation, harassment and fear that many Asian Americans have experienced during the pandemic.
Referring to Tuesday’s murders in Atlanta, Biden said that “whatever the motivation” of the killer, the fact remains that “too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying; waking up each morning the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake.”
“They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed,” Biden said. “They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed. Documented incidents of hate against Asian Americans have seen a skyrocketing spike over the last year,” he added, noting that many incidents never get reported.
“We’re learning again what we’ve always known: words have consequences,” Biden said, alluding to the slurs by Trump and others over the past year. “It’s the coronavirus. Full stop. … Hate and violence often hide in plain sight. It’s often met with silence. … But that has to change, because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit. We have to speak out, we have to act.”
Many members of the AAPI community wanted Biden and Harris to more forcefully steer law enforcement officials toward investigating the spa shootings as a hate crime, even though Biden made it a practice during his campaign to say that he would avoid directing law enforcement or Department of Justice officials on how to conduct their investigations.
Biden's First 100 Days
Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, seemed to edge closest to making her own opinion clear by stating there were incontrovertible facts about the incidents.
“Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women,” Harris said. “The shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian Americans. The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans has risen dramatically over the last year, and more.”
She noted that there have been some 3,800 such incidents reported over the past year – two of every three by women, “everything from physical assaults to verbal accusations.”
“It’s all harmful, and sadly it’s not new. Racism is real in America and it has always been,” said Harris. “Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism too.”
Urging passage of anti-hate crime legislation
The way in which Biden and Harris are shining a light on racism and violence toward Asian Americans marks a course correction from Trump, but also a return to the more traditional role that presidents have played as a moral authority for the country ever since former President John F. Kennedy set a marker by declaring that civil rights was a moral issue for the presidency, Naftali said.
“President Trump was an aberration among modern presidents,” said Naftali, who teaches at New York University. “From Kennedy on, the moral defense of civil rights has been part of the responsibilities of heads of state of this country. It doesn’t mean that they’ve all taken it up with purpose and passion. But many of them have.”
Naftali cited the example of former President George W. Bush visiting a mosque six days after the terrorist attacks of September 11 – at a time when many Muslims were being villainized. During that visit, Bush called on Americans to respect Islam as a religion of peace and to respect Muslims as valuable contributors to society who should be treated with respect.
Former President Barack Obama delivered a powerful eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston in 2015 – suggesting that the racially-motivated killings of Pinckney and eight other people by a White gunman during bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church could lead Americans to reexamine their biases and prejudices and embrace their common humanity with their neighbors.
The growing political power of Asian Americans
Standing with members of the Asian American community – whose voters have been increasingly influential in recent presidential and congressional elections – will be not just a moral imperative, but a political one.
A Pew Research Center report last year showed that Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group within the electorate, comprising nearly 5% of the nation’s eligible voters last year. Party affiliation varies by origin group, but both Democrats and Republicans have stepped up their outreach to different Asian American Pacific Islander communities in recent years in recognition of their growing influence.
Still, in this deeply polarized nation where Trump’s politics of demonization cast a long shadow, it is not yet clear how Congress will react to Biden’s call for passing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act as an immediate step after the Atlanta spa shootings.
Some Republicans were hesitant to comment on the Atlanta spa shootings and whether they were racially motivated. And the bill could run into political headwinds in Congress where some Republicans have defended Trump’s use of the term “China virus.”
Most House Republicans voted against a resolution introduced by Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York denouncing anti-Asian sentiment in the midst of the pandemic during the last session of Congress. The resolution said that “the use of anti-Asian terminology and rhetoric related to COVID-19, such as the ‘Chinese Virus’, ‘Wuhan Virus’, and ‘Kung-flu’ have perpetuated anti-Asian stigma.” Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats to pass the resolution 243-164.
This week, during a congressional hearing that was supposed to be about discrimination against Asian Americans, Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican, infuriated Democratic lawmakers by rambling about lynchings, his dislike of the Chinese Communist Party and what he viewed as the policing of free speech.
“Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bullseye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” Meng said in an impassioned response to Roy. “This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community and to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice from us.”
When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked Thursday whether he regretted using the term “China virus,” he replied, “I don’t know,” and said people should wait to see “why the shooter did what he did.” At the same time, the California Republican said he unequivocally condemned violence and discrimination against Asian Americans.
The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would provide more funds to the Justice Department to fight the kinds of hate crimes that have become all too common during the pandemic, would help state and local governments approve hate crimes reporting and enhance education within Asian American communities about how to report hate crimes.
Biden called for urgency from members of Congress on Friday to pass both the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which he initially authored more than 25 years ago and which the House voted to reauthorize this week but will likely face a tougher path in the Senate.
But he acknowledged there’s a limit to what legislation can do.
“For all the good laws can do, we have to change our hearts,” Biden said in Atlanta. “Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop. It’s on all of us, all of us together to make it stop.”