Even before the deadly shootings at spas in the Atlanta area killed six women of Asian descent, President Biden had taken steps to address the recent surge of violence against Asians and Asian Americans by making forceful statements against hate and harassment, banning the federal government from employing the sort of “inflammatory and xenophobic” language used by his predecessor and tasking senior administration leaders to hold “listening sessions” with community leaders and advocates.
Now, with a sharp focus on the disturbing trend, Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders are calling for concrete, measurable responses from Biden and his Justice Department.
“Right now, people are afraid to leave their homes,” said Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “I think that basic denial of your sense of safety, it is a violation of our human rights. And I think that this does need to be taken seriously and urgently.”
This week, Biden and Vice President Harris, the first Asian American elected to that position, refocused a trip planned to tout the benefits of the coronavirus relief package to instead meet with Asian American lawmakers and other community leaders in Georgia.
“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 stake,” Biden said after the meeting. “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed.”
“One thing that we know he does well is serve as a healer and a person that understands grief,” said John Yang, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “A person that understands we must first center ourselves on the victims and their families and make sure that they are taken care of. That’s certainly what our community is hoping for. And then, from there we talk about solutions.”
There are a wide variety of proposed solutions aimed at curbing violence, many of which are focused on the role that the Justice Department could play. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other Justice Department officials have been meeting with leaders of Asian and Pacific Islander groups, including several meetings this week, according to multiple sources familiar with the meetings.
Gregg Orton, the national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said that when Biden releases his budget, it should significantly increase funding for programs at the Department of Justice that are designed to engage communities.
“We can have as many listening sessions as we’d like, and I think it’s great that a department makes themselves available to that kind of engagement,” Orton said. “But truly, until we reach the people on the ground and support not just the community organizers, but the communities themselves, it’s difficult to see a lot of progress being made.”
One of the areas that leaders say could benefit from increased funding is the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, which was established as a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It provides communities dealing with racial or other tensions with professional mediators and other services to help resolve conflicts. In the past, the Community Relations Service has responded in moments like the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown or the 1992 LA riots, which occurred after white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
“Their job is to interact with the community, and not in a law enforcement way, not a prosecutorial or criminal way,” said Yang. “Rather, their job is to go to meet with community members and also serve as a bridge to bring different community members together.”
A spokesperson for the Justice Department said that the Community Relations Service has been supporting AAPI communities since the start of the pandemic, including sharing best practices for responding to and preventing hate crimes, connecting people to government resources and helping to implement solutions identified by local community groups.
“Good data informs good policymaking”
On Capitol Hill, House lawmakers this week held a hearing on anti-Asian discrimination and violence, the first in several decades.
Democratic lawmakers are reintroducing legislation meant to bolster law enforcement’s response to hate crimes against Asian Americans. Among other things, the bill would designate a Justice Department official to speed up the reviews of hate crimes reported to federal, state or local law enforcement. The bill’s House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York, told NPR’s All Things Considered that the goal “is really more education and accessible resources for our community.”
Before departing for Georgia, Biden released a statement urging Congress to pass the legislation, noting that “every person in our nation deserves to live their lives with safety, dignity, and respect.”
Meng and other Asian American leaders have also raised questions about the availability of good data tracking incidences of racially motivated violence. The group Stop AAPI Hate began collecting data on hate and harassment incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. last March. In a report released the day of the deadly shootings, the group said there had been nearly 3,800 such incidents between mid-March 2020 and the end of February this year.
“I think it’s extremely important to understand that those who answered our survey said the primary reason why they came onto our site was to register a ‘Me, too,’ to say, ‘This happened to me, this happened to my elderly parents while they were walking with my toddler,’ ” said Choi, the co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “They wanted to be a part of a collective voice.”
Still, those figures are self-reported and anecdotal, and some AAPI leaders say that ultimately the infrastructure for reporting hate crimes in the country should be overhauled.
“Good data informs good policymaking,” said Orton. “We simply can’t expect the government to make decisions about program design and implementation of programs if they don’t truly understand the communities that they’re trying to protect.”
Biden’s January memorandum on combating racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans directs the attorney general to “expand collection of data and public reporting regarding hate incidents.”
Democratic lawmakers are planning to reintroduce the No Hate Act, which would improve hate crime reporting, expand resources for victims and strengthen federal laws that combat hate speech and attacks.
“Give us a point person”
Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation, said it’s also important that victims or witnesses of crimes receive culturally competent assistance in navigating the legal system.
“Some Asian elders, for instance, may not understand how a question is framed or the way law enforcement might ask a question. How we reach out needs to be done very differently,” Yoo said. “It’s not what we see on Law and Order. It needs to be very very nuanced, so we need to have people working in DOJ who look like us, who speak our language, who understand the culture to be able to engage with all of those tools.”
The Department of Justice has translated its hate crimes resources website and reporting portal into more languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Arabic.
For Shekar Narasimhan, the urgency around responding to anti-Asian harassment and violence underscores why he believes it’s critical that Biden’s administration reflect the diversity of the nation. Narasimhan, the chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, has been bringing up the need for more Asian representation in Biden’s cabinet and wants the Justice Department to name an official focused specifically on these issues.
“Give us a point person, so every month we can have a briefing. That person can talk to us about what they’ve learned, what’s going on and some questions,” said Narasimhan. “And we’ll bring together people from other communities that tend not to get listened to.”
The Department of Justice has not named a point person on these issues. But a department spokesperson says it has more meetings planned with AAPI lawmakers and leaders.
Narasimhan said recent events underscore the need for the Senate to confirm the civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta, Biden’s pick to serve in the Justice Department’s third-highest job.
“You need a person at a very senior level who has access to resources,” he said. “She comes with the body of knowledge and work and sensitivity to start addressing this tomorrow morning.”