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Biden, Harris extend support to Asian Americans in wake of Atlanta shootings

"Silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit," Biden said in a speech Friday in Atlanta.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks after meeting with leaders from Georgia's Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, at Emory University in Atlanta, as Vice President Kamala Harris listens, on March 19, 2021.Patrick Semansky / AP

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris offered their support to the Asian American community during a trip to Atlanta Friday in the wake of the spa shootings that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

The visit comes as law enforcement officials continue to investigate whether the shootings were racially motivated amid growing frustration from the Asian American community, who have experienced a sharp increase in anti-Asian attacks this past year.

"Whatever the motivation, we know this: Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets worrying," Biden said in a speech at Emory University. "They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed."

"Silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit," he said. "We have to speak out. We have to act."

Harris, the first Asian American to be vice president, spoke to the larger historical context of racism in the country, referencing laws that dated back to the 1800s that discriminated against Asians. "Racism is real in America and it has always been," Harris said, speaking before the president. "Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. Sexism too."

Ahead of their speeches, Biden and Harris met with Asian American community leaders and state lawmakers to discuss the impact of the shootings and the increased attacks, a conversation that the president later described as "heart wrenching."

Biden and Harris' visit, their first joint trip since taking office, had initially been scheduled as part of the administration's "Help is Here" tour promoting the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package. But the trip took on new weight after the shooting, with the White House announcing Thursday that the political event would be postponed.

Still, Biden touted the Covid-19 relief Friday, tying it to Georgia Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, whose elections narrowly delivered Democrats control of the Senate.

"If anyone ever wondered if voting can change a country, Georgia just proved it can," Biden said. "But for their votes, this would not have happened."

While in Atlanta, Biden met with Ossoff, Warnock, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams, the White House said.

Biden and the vice president began their visit with a stop at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, to receive an update on the fight against the pandemic.

Biden, whose own personal loss of his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident and his son to cancer has made him uniquely suited to console the nation during a time of grief, addressed the families of the victims directly, saying, "The day will come when their memory brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye, as believable as that is now."

"It will take a while, but I promise you it will come."

The Atlanta area shootings have sparked a fresh wave of fear and anger among the Asian American community, with some local officials and community advocates calling on law enforcement officials to swiftly characterize the killings as a hate crime.

A 21-year-old white man was charged with eight counts of murder and homicide and one count of aggravated assault, police said Wednesday.

Authorities said that Long claimed the attack was not racially motivated. The suspect told investigators that he had a "sex addiction" and that he saw the spas as "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate." Law enforcement officials said Long was believed to have previously visited the spas he targeted.

Democrats and community leaders in Georgia have said that race cannot be ignored as a motive, especially considering that Anti-Asian American hate incidents have dramatically increased during the pandemic, with a disproportionate number of attacks directed at women.

"Words have consequences. It’s the Coronavirus. Full stop," Biden said Friday, alluding to the impact of the offensive race-based language former President Donald Trump often used to refer to the coronavirus.

While headed to Atlanta on Friday morning, Biden appeared to trip on the stairs as he was boarding Air Force One. White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the president was "doing just great" and that it was very windy and she almost fell herself.