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More than 200 civil rights groups demand Congress publicly reject coronavirus racism

Rep. Judy Chu, the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, says she “commends” the groups for speaking out.
Image: Judy Chu, Hakeem Jeffries, Steny Hoyer, Karen Bass
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, center, is joined by, from left, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, as they speak to reporters about the 2020 census on Capitol Hill on March 5, 2020.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

More than 200 civil rights groups have demanded that the House and Senate leadership take “tangible steps to counter the hysteria" around the coronavirus, offering the passage of a joint resolution denouncing the racism and xenophobia as one solution.

“The level of disruption COVID-19 has had on everyday life has caught many by surprise and left even more people understandably concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones,” Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, told NBC News. “For millions of Asian Americans, there is added anxiety in the way the virus has been racialized. For our country’s leaders to come together and set the tone, that despite the uncertainty of these times, we need to stand united against racism — that is a powerful statement.”

In a letter spearheaded by the council and sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., this week, a number of racist incidents were cited around the country that were fueled by the virus, including two Hmong guests in Indiana who were harassed and barred from staying at a Super 8 motel and then a Days Inn. In a separate incident, a woman wearing a mask in New York was called a “diseased b----.”

The groups also acknowledged that the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus had previously sent a letter to their fellow members of Congress. The caucus had called on the lawmakers to “help us prevent hysteria, ignorant attacks, and racist assaults that have been fueled by misinformation pertaining to the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19)” by only sharing confirmed and verifiable information. The organizations called on the other legislators to take the caucus’ lead.

“In the face of this growing threat, the American people need to hear from leaders such as yourselves, that we must face these circumstances together, rather than allow fear and misinformation to divide us,” the letter reads.

Pelosi has publicly condemned the racism tied to the pandemic on Twitter, writing that “Bigoted statements which spread misinformation and blame Asians and the Asian American community for #coronavirus make us all less safe.” She has also called on McCarthy, who tweeted the term “Chinese coronavirus,” to delete the words and apologize.

McCarthy, however, has responded to criticisms by pointing to outlets that have used the same language. The Asian American Journalists Association released guidelines for responsible reporting in February to guard against “fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak.”

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chair of the caucus, says she “commends” the groups for speaking out. “Despite warnings from health experts and government officials” to avoid labeling the virus by country or ethnicity, members of the GOP have continued to do so, Chu said. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., used the term “Wuhan virus” as recently as Thursday.

“It’s been especially appalling to see this rhetoric coming from President Trump and House Republican leader McCarthy, who should be working to bring our country together during this public health crisis rather than stoking xenophobia and fear,” she said. “If Republicans will not listen to the experts, perhaps they can understand the experiences of those impacted.”

On Tuesday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, agreed when questioned by Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., at a House hearing that it was "absolutely wrong and inappropriate" to use the term “Chinese coronavirus.”

While GOP legislators have since continued to identify the disease by country or ethnicity, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., previously said that the rhetoric could be a possible tactic to distract from Trump’s handling of the pandemic. She believes it’s likely some officials are using China or Asian Americans as scapegoats “versus actually dealing with the problem at hand.”