By DEENA ZARU, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden signed an executive action Tuesday directing federal agencies to combat xenophobia against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, amid a rise in hate crimes and harassment over coronavirus’ suspected origins in Wuhan, China.
“Today, I’m directing federal agencies to combat the resurgence of xenophobia, particularly against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, that we’ve seen skyrocket during this pandemic. This is unacceptable and it’s un-American,” Biden said in remarks at the White House.
“I’ve asked the Department of Justice to strengthen its partnership with the Asian American Pacific Islander community to prevent those hate crimes. I’ve also asked the Department of Health and Human Services to put out best practices for combatting xenophobia in our national response to COVID.”
According to a United Nations report released in October, hate crimes against Asian Americans in the U.S. have reached an “alarming” level. The report cites more than 1,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans from March to May 2020
The executive action is one of several signed by the president this week addressing systemic racism. It was welcomed as an “important first step” by civil rights advocacy groups that had voiced concerns over former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the virus and its impact on the AAPI community.
Stop AAPI Hate — a coalition of advocacy groups that was formed in March 2020 in response to a rise in hate crimes during the pandemic — applauded the executive action as a “brighter moment for Asian Americans” and called on the administration to expand civil rights protections.
“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Asian Americans have reported acts of hate and violence, and the vast majority live in a climate of fear,” the coalition said in a statement. “What is most disturbing is that the rising hate was fueled by racist and xenophobic rhetoric used by the former president and his administration’s implementation of a number of policies and efforts to target our communities.”
In efforts to blame China for the spread of COVID-19, Trump repeatedly referred to the respiratory disease as the “China virus” during news briefings and on social media — rhetoric that was mirrored by top White House officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Pressed repeatedly by reporters on concerns that his rhetoric was contributing to the targeting of Asian Americans, Trump doubled down on his use of anti-Chinese language and continued to use the term “China virus” through the final days of his presidency.
Critics of Trump’s rhetoric pointed out that diseases don’t carry nationalities and the World Health Organization specifically named the virus COVID-19 to avoid regional or ethnic stigma.
Biden’s executive memo doesn’t mention Trump by name, but it directly refers to the federal government’s rhetoric on COVID-19.
“The Federal Government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin,” the memo reads. “Such statements have stoked unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and have contributed to increasing rates of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI persons.”
Cynthia Choi, co-director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) — a civil rights organization that is part of the Stop AAPI Hate coalition — told ABC News that Asian Americans have faced a “double whammy” amid the pandemic. In addition to the public health threat, the community has experienced an increase in hate crimes and a significant drop in business due to anti-Asian discrimination perpetuated by inflammatory language.
“Very early on before shelter in place orders took effect we noticed that Chinatown was like a ghost town … it was based on anti-China, anti-Asian discrimination that people stopped patronizing Asian businesses,” she said.
CAA is based in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where there’s a large concentration of Asian Americans. Business owners in Chinatowns across the U.S. have also described similar experiences.
Choi said that amid a reinvigorated civil rights movement in the U.S., Biden’s executive action is part of the “accountability” needed for the AAPI community to heal.
“To have our administration, the Biden Harris administration, recognize the painful history of racial discrimination and xenophobia in our country is a necessary first step,” she said. “It does send a powerful message that the lives of Asian Americans (are) included as part of this racial reckoning, and we look forward to working with this administration and our elected officials in this process.”
ABC News’ Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.
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