WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden on Thursday (May 20) signed into law an Act aimed at combating a wave of hate crimes, most prominently against Asian Americans.
The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act creates units in law enforcement agencies to tackle the problem and mandates expedited investigations among other things.
“My message to all of you who are hurting is, we see you, and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias,” Mr Biden said at a signing ceremony.
“We have to change the hearts of the American people,” he added. “Hate can be given no safe harbour in America. I mean it, no safe harbour. It can’t be dismissed, like ‘well that’s just what happens'.”
“Silence is complicity,” he said. “Every time we’re silent, every time we let hate flourish, you make a lie of who we are as a nation.”
Mr Biden praised the bipartisan response; the Act cleared the Senate with a 94-1 vote and passed overwhelmingly in the House. Dozens of lawmakers attended the signing, including New York Congresswoman Judy Chu and senators Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono.
The Act is a “necessary step to stand up for Asian Americans at home and rebuild trust with our friends and partners across Asia”, said Mr Alexander Feldman, chairman and president of the US-Asean Business Council, in an e-mailed statement applauding the signing.
“How we treat hate within our own borders impacts our relationships abroad,” he added.
The US has a long history of racial prejudice against Asians, dating back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
But over the past four years in particular, intensifying geopolitical rivalry with China - that some are seeing as a dangerous new Cold War - plus political rhetoric, blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic, have contributed significantly to a wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans, taking the community out into city streets across the US.
Despite the increased attention – and several arrests of attackers, including by a special squad formed by the New York Police Department – there remain persistent reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans almost on a daily basis.
“The Act will assist victims and streamline the process for reporting crimes, including providing options to report crimes in multiple languages,” Ms Gloria Steil, a Korean-American who lectures in literary and critical studies at the Pratt Institute, told The Straits Times.
But she added: “Given the history of hate crimes in this country… it is disturbing that we’ve gone this long without a unified definition of such crimes and a centralised way to report them.”
Dr Jerrine Tan, a Singaporean and visiting lecturer in English and global Anglophone literature at Mount Holyoke College, said the Act will channel more resources into state surveillance and policing, which does not do much to address the direct and extant needs of vulnerable populations.
“Indeed, these populations who suffer from discrimination and encounter hate crime are often most at risk of police violence,” she added.
Black, Latinx and Indigenous minority groups have suffered higher mortality rates, job loss and also daily racism, she noted.
“Additional policing will invariably affect other minority groups with whom Asian Americans should be in solidarity," she added.
“Anti-Asian racism did not begin with the former president (Donald Trump) and his xenophobic language, terming Covid-19 the ‘China virus’. Nor did it end after he left office,” said Dr Tan.
Mr Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, said: “It’s a welcome start and an important bipartisan step forward. But the new law is far from a solution to the enduring question of how to address anti-Asian hate and the longstanding issue of the “otherisation” of Asians in America.
“Now comes the much harder part — changing attitudes and behaviours by addressing persistent stereotyping, long-standing economic inequalities within and across communities, and the rise of toxic and divisive social media content that have contributed to anti-Asian hate.”
Mr Chin recalled the case of Mr Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was beaten to death by two white men - who thought he was Japanese - in Detroit in 1982, an incident that has not been forgotten in the Chinese American community.
“The new anti-hate law can be viewed as a continuation of and a tribute to an Asian American civil rights movement that Vincent Chin’s killing helped spark,” Mr Chin said.
“But it is also a sign of how much has not changed and how much more needs to be done. America’s journey towards a more perfect union is far from complete.”
President Biden did not mince words either on Thursday.
Hate and racism are “the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation”, he said before signing the Bill.
Separately, earlier this week, the FBI said the 2017 murder of 17-year-old Maggie Long in her Bailey, Colorado home has been reclassified as a potential hate crime.
A high school senior, she left her school on Dec 1, 2017 to pick up water and cookies for an event at the school.
She stopped at her family’s home where she was attacked, before the house was set on fire.