Senate Democrats call for federal action on anti-Asian coronavirus racism

“There has not been a concerted effort from federal agencies to prevent and address anti-Asian sentiment related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hi., Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hi., Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.Bloomberg via Getty Images, AP, Getty

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By Kimmy Yam

A dozen Senate Democrats on Friday called on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to take "robust" action against the uptick in anti-Asian sentiment and attacks since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In a letter shared exclusively with NBC Asian America, the lawmakers urged the chair of the commission, Catherine E. Lhamon, to issue guidance to federal agencies, like the Citizenship and Immigration Services or the State Department, on preventing and addressing anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.

“In order to reduce the dangerous and hateful spread of anti-Asian sentiment that is on the rise during this pandemic, we respectfully request that USCCR issue such guidance without delay, and that it take into account language accessibility for Asian Americans with limited English proficiency,” read the letter.

Three senators spearheaded the letter: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii.

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Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy and political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, said that the letter carries symbolic weight coming from Congress.

“For communities that are affected, it makes the difference in knowing that there are members of the U.S. Senate that are willing to fight for not just their interest, but their right to exist without harassment,” he said.

As the letter notes, Asian Americans have encountered a heightened number of attacks, with the most violent cases targeting the victim’s identity. At a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, last month, for example, Jose L. Gomez allegedly tried to kill an Asian American family, stabbing three, "because he thought the family was Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus," according to FBI documents obtained by ABC News.

The nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate has received more than 1,110 self-reported incidents of hate, including assault and vandalism, from March 19 to April 1.

The lawmakers’ document points to language like “Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan Virus, used by President Donald Trump and other Republican officials, as a contributing factor to the stigmatization of the Asian American community. Public health officials, including the World Health Organization, have warned against using such terms, calling them inaccurate and potentially incendiary. The WHO itself revised its naming guidelines in 2015 to avoid the unintended consequences of stigmatizing communities or industries.

Research examining Trump’s inflammatory remarks toward the Latinx community suggests that terms used by officials have what is called an “emboldening effect.” Individuals are more likely to express their prejudice and to act on it after hearing his remarks, one such study indicates. In contrast, while remarks condemning such rhetoric did not completely negate the emboldening effect, they did soften it.

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“What the research shows is that the rhetoric of our political leaders makes a difference,” Ramakrishnan, who worked on the study, said. “It is important to consistently call out rhetoric and behavior that are beyond the pale and beyond the norms of American society and of political discourse.”

While the senators' letter acknowledges that the civil rights commission publicly condemned the rise in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, and that certain agencies have issued guidance of their own, they argue that further action is necessary to combat the discrimination.

“There has not been a concerted effort from federal agencies to prevent and address anti-Asian sentiment related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter reads. “There must be more robust efforts across the federal government to respond to hateful actions and discrimination against Asian Americans.”

The senators’ letter follows a House resolution introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., last month that would condemn all forms of racism and scapegoating and call on public officials to denounce anti-Asian sentiment. The bill drew overwhelming support, with more than 120 co-sponsors. A companion resolution, led by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Duckworth and Hirono, was introduced in the Senate shortly afterward.