150 members of Congress demand Justice Department action against anti-Asian, COVID-19 racism

"We did not understand why the Department of Justice wasn't doing more in countering hate crimes," said Rep. Ted Lieu, who led the bipartisan effort.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., during the House impeachment inquiry hearings on Dec. 9, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., during the House impeachment inquiry hearings in Washington on Dec. 9.Doug Mills / Pool via AFP via Getty Images file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Kimmy Yam

About 150 members of Congress called on the Justice Department to take action against COVID-19-related anti-Asian racism this week.

The bipartisan group, led by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., demanded that Attorney General William Barr publicly condemn attacks targeting the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, as well as provide status updates on the steps the department is taking to combat acts of anti-Asian bias.

"We appreciate the op-ed the Department placed in the Washington Examiner generally stating that hate crimes will be investigated and prosecuted," the letter read, referring to an opinion piece written by Eric Drieband, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. "However, the dangers faced by the Asian American community today are very real and deserve a strong and specific response by our government."

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

While previous efforts have sought to get the Justice Department to address the subject, Lieu said he hopes the bipartisan support for the letter could pressure the administration to respond.

"We know that the pandemic is not going away and the hate against Asian Americans is not going away," Lieu said.

He added, "We did not understand why the Department of Justice wasn't doing more in countering hate crimes."

The letter follows a push from other lawmakers, including a group of Senate Democrats, urging the Justice Department to act. Previously the group of more than a dozen senators, led by Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Cory Booker of New Jersey, sent a separate letter demanding that the department devise and release a plan addressing the anti-Asian attacks. The hate incident reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate collected reports on more than 800 incidents of discrimination and harassment in three months during the pandemic in California alone.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division laid down a three-part plan following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to protect communities that were dealing with similar racist attacks. The plan included outreach to the communities, including Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians and other Americans who were targeted by discrimination, as well as coordination of civil rights enforcement across agencies. Similar efforts, however, have not been made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lieu, who said he has been the target of a marked increase in hateful comments tied to the pandemic, said that not only has the Trump administration done little to address the uptick in hate attacks, but that the president also has contributed to the anti-Asian sentiment by using terms like "Kung flu" and "China virus." He said it is possible to criticize China's role in mishandling the virus without putting Asian Americans in harm's way.

"It's fine and appropriate to criticize China. What they did at the beginning with this virus — China absolutely should not have suppressed information about this virus or lied about the virus. Those initial actions are not defensible," Lieu said. "That's very different than calling it the 'kung flu' or calling it 'the Chinese virus,' because that leads to, first of all, making a joke of this pandemic, which he shouldn't be doing. But also it leads to discrimination against Asian Americans."

Lieu said he believes Trump's increased use of language like "China virus" is "absolutely" a distraction from the president's mishandling of the pandemic.

"It's clear that Donald Trump started to resort to xenophobic, anti-immigrant and racist actions when he started to sag in the polls. He started to embrace the Confederacy. He started to again use statements about the pandemic that negatively affected Asian Americans," he said.

Lieu said he is not asking for much at this point.

"It'd be great if the president condemned racism, but I just want him to stop making his own racist statements. If he could do that, that'd be very helpful," Lieu said.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Trump's anti-Asian language could have an impact on his constituents. A study published in February found that Trump's inflammatory remarks about the Latinx community had led to what researchers called the "emboldening effect." People were more likely to express their prejudices, as well as act on them, after they heard his remarks. Statements condemning such language were not able to completely negate the emboldening effect, but they did soften it, according to the research.

Lieu said that as some states move toward reopening and students prepare to return to some form of school, he is concerned about how COVID-19 racism will take shape if further action isn't taken by the administration.

"I fear increasing incidents against Asian Americans will occur as reopenings continue to happen," he said. "I also fear that Asian American children will be bullied in school in the fall."