WASHINGTON (CN) — Where rhetoric steeped in xenophobia targeting Asians in America and around the world once emanated from the White House, President Joe Biden signaled the start of a new chapter Thursday with his signature into law of the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act.
The law comes in response to violence and hate crimes perpetrated against Asian Americans that have steadily ticked up amid the spread the respiratory virus known as Sars-CoV-2. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that anti-Asian hate crimes went up 164% in 2020, but the trend has shown little sign of stopping.
Lawmakers sponsored the bill signed into law this afternoon shortly after eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed in a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas.
“History will remember this day and this moment when our nation took action to combat hate. Around this time last year when I was in the Senate, Senator Mazie Hirono and Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced a resolution in condemning the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in our country. At that time, more than 1,100 hate incidents had been reported since the start of the pandemic. That number is now more than 6,600,” Vice President Kamala Harris said, standing with President Biden at the start of the signing ceremony in the stately East Room of the White House.
The moment was particularly poignant for Harris, who is not only the first female vice president, but the first Black and Asian American vice president, too.
“After the president signs this bill today, our work will not be done,” she added. "Here’s the truth: Racism exists in America. ... The work to address injustice wherever it exists remain the works ahead."
The freshly signed law will direct the Department of Justice to hasten review of pandemic-related hate crimes and in particular, those crimes harming Asian Americans. A point person will also be set up inside of the department to coordinate with state and local law enforcement agencies.
Condemning brutal attacks on Asian Americans that have sprung up in cities crisscrossing the nation, the president said: “I believe with every fiber of my being that there are simple core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans, and one of them is standing together against hate, against racism, the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation.”
After effusive praise for Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Representative Grace Meng of New York who spearheaded legislation in the Senate and House, respectively, in acknowledgement of the bipartisanship achieved to pass the bill, Biden also thanked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
A Kentucky Republican otherwise known for his opposition to Democrat-led legislation, McConnell is married to an immigrant from Taiwan, the Trump-era Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and helped whip fellow Republicans to join him in supporting the bill. The Covid 19 Hate Crimes Act passed the Senate 94-1 last month.
There was more resistance in the House where the final tally came to 364-62, with only Republicans voting against the measure.
With public education campaigns on racist and discriminatory language, plus new online portals and telephone hotlines being made available for people to easily report their experiences — and in multiple languages — Biden said Thursday the bill will significantly improve state and local law enforcement’s ability to identify and investigate hate crimes.
Thursday’s ceremony was a far cry from a year earlier, and President Biden took pains to express how far the country had come.
During former President Donald Trump’s single term in the White House, Trump regularly referred to Covid-19 as the “China Virus,” against the World Health Organization’s years-old recommendation that assigning a disease or virus to a group of people or a location creates “unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people."
The 45th president also used the even more offensive term “Kung flu” at campaign rallies in Arizona, triggering an echo in the demeaning rhetoric from Republicans like Texas Senators Bob Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
“With all the good the law can do, we have to change our hearts. We have to change the hearts of the American people. Hate can be given no safe harbor in America. I mean it. No safe harbor,” Biden said. “It can’t be dismissed as ‘Well, that’s just what happens.’ You have to speak up and speak out. It’s on all of us together to make it stop.”
Biden continued: “My message to all of you who think this doesn’t matter to them — look around. Look in the mirror. Look in the eyes of your children. Every one of us are lessened, every one of us are all hurt by this hate.”
The law includes a provision known as the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, sponsored by a bicameral and bipartisan group of lawmakers including Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Jerry Moran of Kansas, as well as Representatives Don Beyer of Virginia, Fred Upton of Michigan, Judy Chu of California and Vern Buchanan of Florida.
One part of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act's name is an abbreviation for the National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality. The other recognizes two victims of racially motivated attacks: Heather Heyer, who was killed by white supremacists at a 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Khalid Jabara, a Lebanese American murdered by his racist neighbor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2016.
A key feature in the NO HATE provision is a requirement that individuals convicted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act be forced to participate in educational programs or community service as a condition of supervised release.
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