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Senate Democrats demand action from CDC, DOJ to curb COVID-19 racism

The lawmakers, who cited an NBC Asian America article published in partnership with the Center For Public Integrity, point out that the agencies tried to mitigate racism after the SARS outbreak.
Image: Mazie Hirono and Cory Booker
Sens. Mazie Hirono and Cory Booker.Zach Gibson; Robyn Beck / Getty Images

A group of Senate Democrats urged two federal agencies to take tangible steps to address a significant rise in anti-Asian bias related to the coronavirus outbreak.

More than a dozen senators, led by Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Cory Booker of New Jersey, sent separate letters to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Justice this week, demanding that they devise and publicly release a plan for addressing the surge in coronavirus-related acts of racism aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The lawmakers, who cited an NBC Asian America article published in partnership with the Center For Public Integrity, point out that the two agencies made efforts to mitigate bias incidents and hate crimes after the SARS outbreak and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but that no such actions have been taken regarding pandemic-related prejudice.

"They were very proactive,” Hirono told NBC Asian America of the agencies in the past. “We're certainly not asking them to do anything different than what had been done in the past with regard to outreach and being very sensitive about racially targeted crimes and speech, but so far very little emanates along those lines under this administration.”

The senators also pressed DOJ to designate an official to coordinate a review of the pandemic-related hate attacks and discrimination as well as a subsequent interagency response. They demanded that the Justice Department produce monthly reports, detailing the number of hate incidents and breaking them down by race, ethnicity and gender. They also urged the department to regularly work with AAPI community organizations and disseminate information, translated into languages used by the community, on civil rights protections.

Similarly, the lawmakers asked the CDC to connect with AAPI groups and establish a multidisciplinary community outreach team to create a “culturally tailored” response to the hostility.

Hirono noted that in the past, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division set forth a three-part plan after the 9/11 attacks that included outreach to the affected communities, including Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians and other Americans who were targeted by discrimination, as well as coordination of civil rights enforcement across agencies. And in 2003, after the SARS outbreak, the CDC launched a 14-member community outreach team the week the agency reported the first five confirmed cases of the illness.

However during the COVID-19 pandemic, little official movement has come from the DOJ. When questioned on the lack of response to the anti-Asian bias, the department pointed to an op-ed in The Washington Examiner, indicating that it would continue prosecuting hate crimes and violations of anti-discrimination laws against the Asian American community. The CDC had been accused of perpetuating anti-Asian racism last month after it chose a work from China’s Qing Dynasty as its cover art for the agency's Emerging and Infectious Diseases journal. The image was revealed in a social media post that has since been deleted.

The condemnation of racism and hate violence should not divide public officials along party lines, Hirono said. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, delivered a speech after the 9/11 attacks urging compassion toward Muslim Americans.

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace,” Bush said days after the attacks.

However, Hirono noted that the Trump administration, which she describes as “anti-immigration,” sets the stage for the divisiveness being seen across the country and has likely created an environment where the condemnation of such violence and racism is not a priority.

“It will take courage for his departments and leaders to do things that would actually help what may be deemed immigrant communities when you’ve got Steve Miller there working night and day to figure out how to harm immigrant groups,” Hirono said, of the Trump senior adviser who is credited with being a driving force behind the slash in refugee programs and crackdown on both authorized and unauthorized immigration.

The demands for action come after a dozen Senate Democrats, also led in part by Hirono, issued a letter demanding that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issue guidance to federal agencies on preventing and addressing anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.