Hate crimes bill to fight Asian American discrimination gets final House vote Tuesday

WASHINGTON – For more than a year, reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans have drastically climbed. 

Now, legislation meant to combat the attacks and racism is on the brink of final approval in Congress. If it passes, it heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature in what would be a win for advocates and the Asian Americans and Pacific Islander community.

The House will vote Tuesday on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would expedite the Justice Department’s review of hate crimes and would designate an official at the department to oversee the effort.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a press conference Tuesday that “after a year in which we’ve seen 6,600 reported anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents, and after a year of the Asian-American community crying out for help, today, Congress is taking historic action to pass long-overdue hate crimes legislation” and send it to Biden’s desk. 

“These incidents have terrified the Asian-American community,” she continued.

After a mass shooting in Georgia in March that killed eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent — lawmakers in both chambers of Congress pushed to expedite the legislation, and called for quick action. May also is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The legislation passed the Senate in April, with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 94-1, becoming just one of the few pieces of legislation to be negotiated and pass the gridlocked upper chamber.

“The vote today on the Anti-Asian Hate Crimes bill is proof that when the Senate is given the opportunity to work, the Senate can work to solve important issues,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said from the Senate floor ahead of that vote.

The last piece of hate crime legislation to be signed into law was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded hate-crime law to include those motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity and more. That was by President Barack Obama in 2009 as a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities has grown despite increased national attention and political action against anti-Asian hate, experts said. The uptick in anti-Asian violence was first reported in March 2020 as COVID-19 began spreading across the nation and some politicians, including former President Donald Trump, blamed China for the pandemic.

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There was a more than 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports to police in the first quarter of 2021 in 16 major cities and jurisdictions compared with last year, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

More than 6,600 hate incidents have been reported in the year after the pandemic began in the United States, Stop AAPI Hate announced this week. More than a third of those incidents were reported this March alone, according to the organization founded last year in response to increased targeting of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic.

In New York this week, a woman was arrested after having been seen on surveillance video attacking two Asian women because they were wearing masks, striking one with a hammer.

‘A historic surge’: Anti-Asian American hate incidents continue to skyrocket despite public awareness campaign

The vote falls on the third annual National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Day Against Bullying and Hate, which coincides with the birthday of Vincent Chin, who, in 1982, was murdered in a hate crime. Chin was a Chinese American man in Detroit killed by two autoworkers who thought he was Japanese, whom they blamed for the industry’s struggles. His killers paid a $3,000 fine each and went free. 

Though it got broad bipartisan support in the Senate, it is possible it will face some Republican resistance in the House, where it needs a two-thirds majority vote for passage.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, speaking from the House floor Tuesday, said his GOP colleagues take issue with things in the bill such as the “ambiguous hotlines for people to report anything they find troubling.” 

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is supported by Biden and the White House. Biden said in March, “It’s time for Congress to codify and expand upon these actions – because every person in our nation deserves to live their lives with safety, dignity and respect.”

For some AAPI members of Congress, the legislation is a good start to combat some of these crimes. But advocacy and support from other communities is necessary. 

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., author of the legislation, released a video in September that played several racist voicemails her office received. 

As a South Asian American, Sonal Shah has experienced hate before, but The Asian American Foundation president sees a unique opportunity this time.


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