When it comes to the sickening rise in anti-Asian violence in our country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers tell the story (to be sure, Asian Americans have also faced racism, violence, and injustice throughout our history, long before COVID-19 struck).
But it’s about more than just numbers, it’s about human beings. As groups such as Stop AAPI Hate have documented, Asian Americans are being assaulted or even killed, and many of them appear to have been targeted simply for being Asian or, more specifically, for being perceived as Chinese. Research has demonstrated a direct connection between racist language coming from The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (Twice) on COVID-19 and spikes in online vitriol aimed at Asians. Trump has made a specific point of ginning up hate. One photo captured his intentionality on this matter.
And it’s not just Trump. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton have all flung words like “China virus”—despite the stigma and harm they cause. Other Republicans have engaged in similar behavior.
When Asian Americans objected to Trump and others’ use of “the Chinese virus,” it was because many of us feared these words would yield a body count. We were told that we were overreacting. But now a year of anti-Asian rage has come to this: children slashed in department stores, elderly set on fire or pushed to their deaths, and women, attacked at twice the rate of men, chased, beaten, spit upon, as if we are not people, but pollutants — infections, contagions, stains on whiteness.
The violence against Asian Americans reached a peak on March 16 with the murders in Atlanta of eight people, six of whom were members of the AAPI community. The motives of the murderer appear to be more complex than the direct, COVID-inspired hate seen in other incidents. Nevertheless racism and misogyny are connected to these killings. Either way, AAPI leaders and activists—who had already been outspoken—stepped up their demands for a robust response.
Five days earlier, in his first primetime speech as president, Joe Biden addressed anti-Asian hate and violence as part of broader remarks about the pandemic and his recovery plan: “Vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated. At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, they’re on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives, and still, still they’re forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America. It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop.”
After the Atlanta murders, AAPI leaders in the Peach State asked for the president to come and listen to them in person during an already planned upcoming trip to Atlanta. Leng Leng Chancey, a local activist and the executive director of 9to5, stated: “We would welcome a meeting with him directly to share with him our demands and thoughts during this time.” On March 19, the president, along with Vice President Kamala Harris—who is of South Asian descent—sat down with Asian American activists in Atlanta.
Although one meeting was never going to bring this problem to an end, local leaders expressed positive feelings about the interaction. Georgia state Rep. Marvin Lim noted that the meeting mostly focused on “the grief people are feeling, the fear people are feeling, the possible responses to that,” and added: “The discussion felt very affirming.” Another participant, State Sen. Michelle Au, spoke specifically about what it meant to have Vice President Harris in the room: “Not only that she was there listening to us, but that she also understood these issues in a very intimate way, that in some ways you can’t teach, that you can’t teach that sort of lived experience. So we felt that she was going to be an incredible advocate on our behalf in the White House.”
Harris, speaking to reporters following the meeting, evoked the inclusive values America must embrace in order to combat this bigotry: “Ultimately, this is about who we are as a nation.” Asian Americans, she added, “have the right to be recognized as American—not as the ‘other,’ not as ‘them,’ but as ‘us.’” To clarify, this was far from the first time the VP has taken a stance against anti-AAPI hate. Along with Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth—the only two AAPI folks serving in that body—she co-sponsored a resolution in Congress last May, and that same month published an op-ed piece, in addition to numerous other public statements.
Just after the meeting, Biden spoke at Atlanta’s Emory University, and directly addressed the hate and violence aimed at members of the AAPI community:
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. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed.
Documented incidents against — of hate against Asian Americans have seen a skyrocketing spike over the last year, let alone the ones that happened and never get reported. It’s been a year of living in fear for their lives just to walk down the street. Grandparents leave — to leave — afraid to leave their homes. Small-business owners targeted and gunned down. Attacks on some of the most vulnerable people in our nation — the elderly, low-wage workers, and women.
[…] The conversation we had today with the AAPI leaders, and that we’re hearing all across the country, is that hate and violence often hide in plain sight. And it’s often met with silence. That’s been true throughout our history, but that has to change — because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.
The president also cited actions his administration had already taken via executive order, and renewed his call for Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, introduced by Sen. Hirono and Rep. Grace Meng of New York, both Democrats. That law would “address the rise of hate crimes and violence targeted at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) by assigning a point person at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to expedite the review of COVID-19-related hate crimes, providing support for state and local law enforcement agencies to respond to these hate crimes, and coordinating with local and federal partners to mitigate racially discriminatory language used to describe the pandemic.”
To return to Biden’s speech, he added: “But for all the good that laws can do, we have to change our hearts. Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop. And it’s on all of us—all of us, together—to make it stop.” While in Atlanta, both the president and vice president condemned Trump’s racist language. Harris pointed out: “For the last year we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans. People with the biggest pulpits, spreading this kind of hate.” The aforementioned State Sen. Au was gratified by Biden and Harris’s words: “To have them talk about it in this way, so publicly, and to say AAPI, or to note that our communities are going through difficult times, is huge.”
After the Atlanta visit, we heard more AAPI voices offering responses: “One thing that we know he does well is serve as a healer and a person that understands grief,” noted President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice John Yang, who added, “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.”
One necessary step is increased resources for Justice Department programs centered on community engagement, according to Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans: “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 related. “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.”
The Asian American Federation’s Executive Director Jo-Ann Yoo urged that the DoJ devote additional resources to ensuring cultural competency so that it can more effectively interact with witnesses and victims of crimes: “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 explained. “It’s not what we see on Law & 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.”
Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, told CNN what she’d like to see going forward, after meeting with Biden and Harris: “I’d like to see it be beyond this moment. And that as much as the former President called it the ‘China virus’ and scapegoated Asian Americans and really fueled this racism around Asian Americans, I would like to see the Biden administration come out just as strongly but in support of Asian Americans.”
Reestablish the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with an initial emphasis on ending anti-Asian bias and violence
Increase funding for AAPI survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault
Establish a taskforce to address coronavirus-fueled xenophobia against Asian Americans
Establish a cross-agency Justice Department initiative to investigate anti-Asian violence. This includes expanding the number of languages available for translation on the agency’s hate crime website and training state and local law enforcement officials on how to report hate crimes.
Launch federal projects to celebrate contributions of Asian Americans to the country
And fund National Science Foundation research on discrimination and xenophobia
In response, Sen. Hirono that day offered strong praise for Biden.
To be sure, the Biden administration has not always gotten it right when it comes to issues of importance to the Asian American community. On March 23, Sen. Hirono and Sen. Duckworth called out the White House over the lack of any Asian Americans having been named to the Cabinet to that point. However, within a matter of hours, Biden had successfully addressed their concerns to the point that they withdrew their threat regarding support for future nominees.
Duckworth’s office stated that she “appreciates the Biden administration’s assurances that it will do much more to elevate AAPI voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government, including appointing an AAPI senior White House official to represent the community, secure the confirmation of AAPI appointments and advance policy proposals that are relevant and important to the community.”
In the same month as increased violence and hate against Asian Americans have been at the forefront of our national conversation, the Biden White House has also had strong words for the government of China over a number of matters, ranging from suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, to threatening Taiwan, to cyberattacks, and more. The administration has particularly emphasized Beijing’s horrific treatment of the Uighurs. They are a predominantly Muslim group numbering 12 million people living in Xinjiang province in the northwest of China, where they make up approximately 50% of the province’s residents. Uighurs speak a language akin to Turkish, and, in terms of ethno-cultural identity, consider themselves related to the Turkic Central Asian peoples living directly west of them.
The BBC offered a brief summary of China’s oppression of the Uighurs: “Human rights groups believe China has detained more than a million Uighurs over the past few years in what the state defines as ‘re-education camps.’ There is evidence of Uighurs being used as forced labour…China has been forcibly mass sterilising Uighur women to suppress the population and separating Uighur children from their families.”
USA Today also put together an overview that contains core pieces of evidence. Leaked documents from inside the government of China detail how officials carried out the program of mass detentions and internment camps. Ӧmir Bekali, a Uighur Muslim who was arrested and held in one of the camps, explained: “The Chinese government calls [them] re-education camps. Actually there are no re-education camps—all are concentration camps.”
On his first full day as Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken agreed that the government of China was committing “genocide against the Uighurs,” an assessment initially made by his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, a week earlier. More recently, on March 22, the U.S. Treasury department issued sanctions against state officials it characterized as “connected to serious human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which reportedly includes arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse, among other serious human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs.” Blinken further remarked that Beijing: “continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. The United States reiterates its calls on the PRC to bring an end to the repression of Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang, including by releasing all those arbitrarily held in internment camps and detention facilities.”
On March 31, the State Department’s annual report on human rights violations likewise came down hard on the Chinese government, stating that it has carried out “genocide and crimes against humanity” against its Uighur citizens. In addition to the statements by Blinken, this put the Biden White House on record, in print, as characterizing this oppression as genocide. In presenting the report, the secretary of state pointed out: “We’re not trying to . . . contain China or keep it down. What we are about is standing up for basic principles, basic rights, and a rules-based international order.”
Biden himself had stated during the campaign, in August 2020, that Beijing was committing genocide in Xinjiang. He also brought up the abuses on his call with President Xi Jinpiang of China on February 10, 2021. During a CNN town hall meeting six days later, he also spoke extensively about the matter with Anderson Cooper. Here’s one segment:
Cooper: “When you talk to him, though, about human rights abuses, is that as far as it goes in terms of the U.S.? Or is there any actual repercussions for China?”
Biden: “Well, there will be repercussions for China. And he knows that. What I’m doing is making clear that we, in fact, are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the U.N. and other agencies that have an impact on their attitude.”
A few have questioned whether Biden’s overall approach to China—which includes his remarks on the oppression of Uighurs—might be exacerbating anti-Asian hate in the U.S. (the government of China has also made this argument, in an attempt to deflect from criticism of their actions—part of a propaganda campaign that also includes producing a movie that depicts happy Uighurs dancing, singing, and harmoniously interacting with the Han Chinese who are the country’s ethnic majority). However, other voices have pushed back strongly against that idea when it comes to Xinjiang.
This is a complex issue that requires a nuanced approach. Even those activists who express concern about U.S. rhetoric that takes on Beijing also acknowledge the seriousness of the Chinese government’s crimes against the Uighurs.
As Caroline Chang, Anka Lee, and Johna Ohtagaki, all experts on foreign policy, wrote (behind a paywall), U.S. leaders “must differentiate between real concerns with the Chinese government and racially motivated hatred against Americans of Asian descent.” Furthermore, the U.S. “must uphold the values that China is seeking to undermine.” The authors noted that civil rights is one of these core values.
The racism faced by AAPI folks does hurt the U.S. image in Asia, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, explained: “The U.S. has always had an enormous problem with racism, which governments in Asia often raise to change the subject from their own abuses. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong.”
In the end, even though the U.S. certainly has its own problems to answer for, there is a vast difference between a society struggling with serious, systemic inequalities and injustices—which at least a good portion of elected leaders, including at the very top, are seeking to address—and one where the highest levels of the government itself are carrying out large-scale, violent oppression, and censoring any domestic press coverage of it. America may not be perfect, but it is necessary and right for President Biden and his top officials to speak out strongly on this issue, both as individuals and on behalf of our country. Doing so is a moral imperative, and is crucial because of America’s position as the leader of the world’s democratic coalition.
As Secretary of State Blinken stated, our struggles with racism at home cannot prevent America from defending human rights around the world.
Standing for people’s freedom and dignity honors America’s most sacred values. At our best, we stand for freedom and justice for all. Not just here at home, but around the world. We will hear from some countries – as we do every year – that we have no right to criticize them because we have our own challenges to deal with. Well, we know we have work to do at home.
That includes addressing profound inequities, including systemic racism.We don’t pretend these problems don’t exist or try to sweep them under the rug. We don’t ignore them. We deal with them in the daylight, with full transparency.
And in fact, that’s exactly what separates our democracy from autocracies: our ability and willingness to confront our own shortcomings out in the open, to pursue that more perfect union. And the way we confront our challenges at home will give us greater legitimacy in advocating for human rights abroad. It’s what President Biden means when he says we must lead by the power of our example.
Think what it would mean if the U.S. did not confront the mass oppression of the Uighurs. Think what it did mean when Trump admitted to Axios’s Jonathan Swan that he declined to impose sanctions over the concentration camps in Xinjiang because he was more concerned about winning his trade war with the Chinese government. In the Orange Julius Caesar’s own words: “Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal.”
According to Trump’s own national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump’s moral turpitude reached an even lower depth. In a 2019 meeting, after listening to President Xi defend his government’s use of these camps, Trump straight up gave his approval. Bolton wrote in his book: “According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
As a Jew I feel a particular responsibility to speak out against state-sponsored genocide. These camps strike me as eerily familiar. No, they are not Nazi death camps, where virtually everyone who passed through the gates ended up murdered. Still, combined with the other oppressive measures Beijing has carried out in the name of either forcibly assimilating or eliminating Uighur people, this campaign is one I could not allow to go unchallenged. It’s gratifying to see our government doing something as well—while also rejecting the hateful, fear-mongering rhetoric spewed by the former guy about the people of China as a whole.
President Biden has strongly condemned anti-AAPI hate in our country, and has stood up for the Uighurs—themselves Asian people—facing horrific treatment at the hands of their government in Asia. So far, comments from Asian American voices indicate that he has struck the right balance on these interconnected issues. Let’s hope he continues to do so, and that his words and deeds—along with the continued, powerful advocacy coming from AAPI leaders and activists—have the positive impact that all who share our democratic values hope to see.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)