Support for the measure was nearly unanimous, offering the Department of Justice new authority to protect Asian Americans against hate crimes.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Taking a tougher stance on racist attacks in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Senate voted 94-1 Thursday to set up a point person inside of the Department of Justice for faster review of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.
Only Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, voted against the bill. Republican Senators Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky missed the vote, as did Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both Minnesota Democrats.
The legislation was sparked after the shooting deaths of six Asian American women at an Atlanta this March. Anti-Asian sentiment has also been on a troubling ascent since the novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China, becoming a conduit for nativist rhetoric in the United States as the Covid-19 pandemic spread.
At multiple campaign rallies and public events last year, former President Donald Trump referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Kung flu,” regularly flouting years-old guidance from the World Health Organization that specifically recommends against naming a virus after its origin because of the backlash it can provoke against religious or ethnic communities.
Trump was not alone. Lawmakers like Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Bob Cornyn, both of Texas, also referred frequently to the “Chinese virus.” Cruz, at one point during quarantine he imposed on himself last March, opined that Trump was taking too much blame for the virus, remarking the 45th president “wasn’t serving bat soup in the Wuhan province.”
The remark stemmed from a conspiracy that was debunked but much like other false commentary on the virus, it circulated rapidly and to the detriment of Asian Americans.
A study last month by the group, Stop AAPI Hate — AAPI is short for Asian American and Pacific Islanders — found that, from March 2020 to February 2021, the number of incidents reported to their organization about verbal harassment, physical assault, online harassment or civil rights violations totaled 3,795 incidents. The year before, the organization tallied just under 2,600 incidents.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California also confirmed an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans last year. The center found the increase was a staggering 149%
Hawaii’s Democrat Senator Mazie Hirono, a Japanese American woman, introduced Thursday’s legislation and highlighted her personal connection to the issue. The lawmaker says she has stopped walking around Washington with ear buds since the pandemic first began and violence toward AAPI has increased, out of fear that she wouldn’t hear someone approaching her or preparing to assault her.
New York Representative Grace Meng, also a Democrat, served as lead sponsor to the legislation in the House.
“For more than a year, Asian Americans all across our nation have been screaming out for help, and in passing the legislation sponsored by Senator Hirono and I, the Senate showed that they heard our pleas,” she said in a statement Thursday.
Meng was a regular target of anti-Asian sentiment. She is expected to reintroduce a companion bill in the House next month so the legislation will take full effect. It too is expected to pass and then it goes to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature.
The Senate’s actions Thursday were a way for the federal government to finally say it was listening, Senator Chuck Schumer said.
“By passing this bill, the Senate makes it very clear that hate and discrimination against any group has no place in America,” the New York Democrat said. “By passing this bill, we say to the Asian-American community that their government is paying attention to them, has heard their concerns and will respond to protect them.”
In addition to setting up a point of contact inside of the Justice Department to conduct expedited review of hate crimes against AAPI, it will also beef up grant funding for state and local enforcement to respond to hate crimes. Law enforcement would be instructed on how to better identify hate crimes, according to the legislation.
The bill also encourages states to set up their own hotlines to contend with hate crimes, a bipartisan provision that was added to the legislation by Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. The lawmakers also negotiated the addition of another provision to the bill passed Thursday. It gives judges an alternative to sentencing for hate crimes and would effectively allow a defendant to complete an educational program or do community service among the very community injured.
Senate Republicans initially balked at the legislation, citing language that was too broad or raising issues with data collection by state officials on hate crimes. It was this that prompted Hawley to vote against measure, he told reporters Thursday.
Though the legislation never mentioned Trump, Majority Leader Schumer from the floor remarked how over the last several years, “forces of hate and bigotry seemed to have gained strength too often encouraged by our former president.”
Compromise was more the mood late Thursday. Though Republicans proposed over a dozen amendments that failed, Senator Hirono told reporters it was because they were mostly unrelated and much that was contentious was eventually worked out in the final version of the legislation.
“The Senate makes it very clear that hate and discrimination against any group has no place in America. Bigotry against one is bigotry against all,” Schumer said Thursday.