Legislating Away Hate
Terry H. Schwadron
May 20, 2021
This one was so obvious that even Congress couldn’t drop the ball.
By a big-margin, bipartisan vote, the House okayed a Senate bill, sending it to Joe Biden for signature, to fight back against the spiraling number of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders especially notable through the pandemic year.
Of course, this is good news, for all but Donald Trump, who continues to rail at coronavirus using racist Chinese labels that are putting actual Americans at risk for the sake of entertaining his base voters.
But passing this law or others aimed at combatting un-social hate are as extremely limited as well as increasingly rare. We can’t legislate being tolerant.
This bill never mentions Trump, his rhetoric or politics for that matter, and focuses on selected specific steps to help identify and expedite reports of hate crimes related to the coronavirus, expand support for local and state law enforcement agencies responding to these reports, and issue guidance on mitigating the use of racially discriminatory language to describe the pandemic.
But let’s not kid ourselves.
The ignorance that prompts racialists to blame a single nation, a single lab or a single open-air food market for a pandemic, that refuses to distinguish between Chinese nationals and any American of Asian descent, or that somehow justifies them punching out a Chinese-American grandmother at random on the street doesn’t disappear with a signature.
Born of Outrage
The bill was authored in outrage by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hi, and Rep. Grace Meng., D-NY, who were responding to a whopping percentage increase in verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Police agencies actually agreed that there is a problem.
In San Francisco we saw the death of an elderly Thai American man last year and the stabbing of two Asian American women this month. In New York, there have been random attacks in the subway and on the streets. In Atlanta two months ago, a gunman killed eight people in three Asian-owned spas, with six victims women of Asian descent.
Since the start of the pandemic, in March, 2020, there have been more than 6,600 hate incidents against Asian Americans, according to the group Stop AAPI Hate. Nearly two-thirds of those incidents targeted women. Proponents of the legislation have cited a study in 16 cities, where hate crimes decreased overall in the past year, but those crimes against Asian Americans soared 145 percent.
In January, Biden signed a memo denouncing racism against Asian Americans and ensuring that all government statements and documents do not contribute to discrimination against Asian Americans. In March, the administration rolled out new funding and initiatives to curb anti-Asian hate, including a cross-agency initiative at the Justice Department to respond to Asian violence. Last month, Biden named Erika Moritsugu as a senior adviser after complaints from lawmakers that Biden had not named any Asian Americans to Cabinet secretary posts or senior White House roles.
The votes in Congress reflected the clarity here. The bill passed in the House 364–62, with all “no” votes coming from Republicans. The Senate last month approved the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act on a 94–1 vote, with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., as the lone “no” vote.
Who could be against hate? The remarks along the way reflected the difficulties of trying to legislate morality.
Rep Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American caucus, noted that the broad bipartisan vote demonstrates how much these “daily tragedies of anti-Asian violence have shocked our nation into action.” Still, some Asian American groups complained that the legislation does not get at the root of the hate problems.
But listen to some of the Republican opponents. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-OH, complained that the bill could infringe on free speech by establishing hotlines where citizens could report anything they find “offensive” and might cause confusion about where to report problems, somehow managing to turn his remarks into a defense of Trump and an attack on Democratic “defund the police” debates. “We are asking state governments to act as speech police,” Jordan said.
None of this affects cultural issues outside crime, of course. A new study released from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative notes Hollywood exclusion of Asian Americans, a pending Harvard University affirmative action case considers whether admission policies discriminate against well-performing applicants of Asian descent, and there are rising tensions between Asians and Blacks reported across the country. New York Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang seems to have drawn more public comment about his ethnicity than his paucity of public policies.
Hate is powerful and insidious. This legislation is a start, but only a start.