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'There is a systemic problem here': Asian American lawmakers testify about surge in violence

Lawmakers and experts testified that rhetoric from the Trump administration helped fuel discrimination across the country.

Asian American lawmakers and academic experts testified Thursday that the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans was part of a "systemic" problem that was made worse by Republican rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we heard constant rhetoric directed at the AAPI community, including from leaders at the highest levels of our government," Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said in testimony at a hearing on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans before a House Judiciary subcommittee. "There is a systemic problem here. And we are duty-bound to stop the spread of homophobic and racist ideas that have escalated to physical threats." (AAPI is short for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.)

Matsui recounted her experience with anti-Asian discrimination, saying her parents and her grandparents were forced to live in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. "I was born in that internment camp," she said.

The hearing was scheduled well before this week's mass shootings in Georgia, where six of the eight people who were killed were women of Asian descent. The bloodshed was repeatedly referred to by the witnesses.

"An investigation is ongoing, and we wait for more information," Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., said in her opening statement, but she said the attack came "during a time when violence and attacks against Asian Americans are on the rise. The hate, the bias and the attacks we've seen against the Asian American community are unacceptable, and they must be stopped."

In her prepared opening remarks, Erika Lee, a professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, said there is a long history of Asian Americans' being "terrorized, treated as enemies and discriminated against" in the U.S.

"Like African Americans and American Indians, Asian Americans were considered racially inferior and unfit for U.S. citizenship for most of our country's history," and the pandemic capitalized on that history, Lee said.

"As the virus has spread across the country, so has anti-Asian racism," Lee said, partly because "some members of the media and some of our highest elected officials have deliberately and consistently used racist language tying Covid-19 to Asians. This has included phrases like the 'Chinese virus' and 'Wuhan virus' and telling Americans to 'blame China' for the pandemic."

She said researchers have determined that "the anti-Chinese rhetoric promoted by leaders directly correlated with a rise in racist incidents against Asian Americans," including tweets about the virus from former President Donald Trump.

Some of the experts pressed for greater civil rights protections at the hearings, but the subcommittee's ranking member, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said he was concerned about the "thought police."

Roy also seemed to suggest that any "bad guys" should be lynched.

"We believe in justice. There are old sayings in Texas about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree. We take justice very seriously. And we ought to do that. Round up the bad guys. That's what we believe. My concern about this hearing is that it seems to want to venture into the policing of rhetoric in a free society, free speech, and away from the rule of law and taking out bad guys," Roy said.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., got emotional as she addressed Roy and his comments during her testimony.

"Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don't have to do it by putting a bull's-eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids. This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community, to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice away from us," said Meng, who is first vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Roy said in a statement to NBC News afterward that he had no regrets about his choice of words.

"Apparently some folks are freaking out that I used an old expression about finding all the rope in Texas and a tall oak tree about carrying out justice against bad guys. I meant it. We need more justice and less thought policing," Roy said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was defensive but not apologetic when asked at a news conference whether he regretted his frequent references to the coronavirus as the "China virus."

"I don't know, does CNN regret that? Does the Democratic committee that started out regret that? I would wait to see why the shooter did what he did. But the virus came from China, and I think the knowledge we had at the time is exactly that. I don't think people from the standpoint should go after any Asian, from any shape or form, and I condemn every action to that," McCarthy said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile, yet to speak out about the violence in Georgia. McConnell, whose wife, Elaine Chao, was Trump's first Asian American Cabinet pick, declined to address the bloodshed in speeches on the Senate floor, and he ignored reporters' questions about the killings Thursday.

Conversely, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., devoted both of his floor speeches, in part, to addressing the shootings and the rise in hate crimes against the Asian American community.

Julie Tsirkin contributed.