Biden signs memorandum to combat bias incidents toward Asian Americans

President Joe Biden signed a memorandum Tuesday, denouncing the discrimination toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community that has arisen alongside the Covid-19 pandemic.

The federal directive, which is being signed as part of a group of racial equity-focused executive orders, memorandums and actions, in part issues guidance on how the Justice Department should respond to the heightened number of anti-Asian bias incidents.

Manju Kulkarni — Executive Director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of API-led community organizations based in L.A. County that has been tracking hate incidents — said the measure was a hopeful first step in ensuring that it’s “real action that's taken to support AAPI communities.”

“I think these are very promising,” Kulkarni said of the actions laid out in the directive. “And I think it's just the beginning. There's a lot more work that needs to be done.”

The memorandum issues guidance for the DOJ on how to better collect data and assist with the reporting of anti-Asian hate incidents. The measure comes after members of both the House and Senate sent separate letters demanding the department take action on the issue last year.

The DOJ didn't take subsequent steps, though the department has exemplified more proactive behavior in previous similar circumstances. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, for example, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division laid down a three-part plan to protect communities dealing with racist attacks. The plan included outreach to the communities, including Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians and others who were targeted by discrimination. It also called for coordination of civil rights enforcement across agencies.

"We know that the pandemic is not going away and the hate against Asian Americans is not going away," Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who led the bipartisan group of House lawmakers in demanding action from then-Attorney General William Barr, previously said. "We did not understand why the Department of Justice wasn't doing more in countering hate crimes."

Aside from an op-ed written by then-assistant attorney general for civil rights Eric Dreiband in April, in which he indicated that generally hate crimes will be investigated and prosecuted, no detailed plan was set forth by the department.

“There was an opportunity for President Trump to look to prior Republican administrations, the Bush administration, which right away, came out very firm in support of Muslim American communities [after 9/11],” Kulkarni said. “And what President Trump did was actually quite the opposite.”

In addition to the DOJ guidance, the directive orders federal agencies to look into whether discriminatory rhetoric like “China Virus” is referenced in any existing policies or federal websites published by the previous administration.

While he was president, Trump, along with other GOP lawmakers, had been frequently criticized for using such language when describing the Covid-19 virus. Many officials warned that the term and others like it would perpetuate the racist association between the disease and Asian Americans, prompting more hate attacks.

Research published in the journal Health Education & Behavior suggests that such racist rhetoric has already had a profound impact on how those in the United States see Asian Americans. While anti-Asian bias had been in steady decline for over a decade, the trend reversed in days after a significant uptick in discriminatory coronavirus speech. The language led to an increased subconscious belief that Asian Americans are “perpetual foreigners,” researchers said.

“Research suggests that when people see Asian Americans as being more ‘foreign,’ they are more likely to express hostility toward them and engage in acts of violence and discrimination,” Rucker Johnson, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the study, said.

The executive order also directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the COVID-19 Health Equity task force to issue guidance around cultural competency, language access, and sensitivity. Given that the Asian Americans are majority foreign-born, and is made up of a sizable population that has limited English proficiency, Kulkarni said it’s critical public health services provide sufficient support.

“Many individuals, including those who are low income, who come from refugee population, etc, are limited English proficient, and so having messages that are in their language are so key, because they are the essential workers, whether it be delivery, working in restaurants, serving as janitors, housekeepers, as well as what are the more high profile essential workers, which are those who are doctors, nurses and in the healthcare industry,” she said.

Over the span of five months during the pandemic, reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate received 2,583 reports of anti-Asian discrimination nationwide. New York City alone reported roughly 250 incidents of harassment and discrimination related to Covid-19 from February to April. More than 40 percent of the incidents were identified as anti-Asian incidents.

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