Biden directs Justice Department to address anti-Asian crimes

President Joe Biden has ordered the Justice Department to establish an initiative to address what he called “rising violence against Asian Americans.”

“We can’t be silent in the face of rising violence against Asian Americans,” Biden posted on his Twitter account. “That’s why today I’m taking additional steps to respond–including establishing an initiative at the Department of Justice to address anti-Asian crimes. These attacks are wrong, un-American, and must stop.”

Biden’s directive comes two weeks after Robert Aaron Long allegedly killed eight people — six of them women of Asian descent — at three metro Atlanta spa locations.

Police believe Long killed four people inside an Acworth-area business, then drove to Atlanta, where he’s accused of killing four others in two spas. He was captured that night about 150 miles south of Atlanta and returned to Cherokee, where he is being held without bond.

Biden’s directive also comes one day after an Asian American woman was attacked in New York City.

The 65-year-old woman was walking in midtown Manhattan a few blocks from Times Square on Monday afternoon when a man approached her and kicked her in the stomach, knocking her to the ground, police said. The man then stomped on the woman’s face several times while shouting anti-Asian insults at her, police said. He later casually walked away, the footage shows.

The attack comes amid a national spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. The NYPD says there have been 33 hate crimes with an Asian victim so far this year, news outlets reported.

Mayor Bill de Blasio called the video “absolutely disgusting and outrageous” and said it was “absolutely unacceptable” that witnesses did not intervene.

“I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what you do, you’ve got to help your fellow New Yorker,” de Blasio said Tuesday at his daily news briefing.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the attack “horrifying and repugnant.” He ordered the state police’s Hate Crimes Task Force to offer its assistance to the NYPD. The NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force is investigating the attack and has asked anyone with information to contact the department. No arrests have been made.

The woman was hospitalized with serious injuries. She was in stable condition Tuesday, a hospital spokesperson said.

According to video footage of the New York City assault, two people who appeared to be security guards walked into the frame and one of them closed the building door as the woman was on the ground.

According to a report from Stop AAPI Hate, more than 3,795 incidents were reported to the organization from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28. The organization, which tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., said that number is “only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur.”

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans over objections from California Rep. Tom McClintock and other Republicans who pushed back on the idea of policing free speech.

“To attack our society as systematically racist, a society that has produced the freest, most prosperous, harmonious multiracial society in human history, well, that’s an insult, and it’s flat out wrong,” McClintock said at the hearing.

The high-profile incidents have put momentum behind efforts to address hate crimes, with Congress looking more likely to address the issue when members return from recess.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, filed cloture last week on one of the bills, which would mandate the Justice Department track crimes that relate to a person’s ethnicity and the pandemic. In a letter to fellow Democrats, Schumer said the bill would “give the Department of Justice and local law enforcement more tools to combat hate crimes.”

The measure does not have support from Republicans in the chamber, disappointing its sponsor, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii.

“I was waiting for some of them to stand up and say very publicly that these kinds of hatred targeting AAPIs is totally unacceptable,” Hirono said, referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “I was waiting for some of that; maybe some of that’s coming out now. I’m not so sure.”

Biden spoke in favor of the bill shortly after the Atlanta shootings, urging Congress to go beyond a presidential memorandum he signed against racism and intolerance directed at Asian Americans.

“Now, 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,” Biden said in a statement.

The language of the bill introduced last Congress would create locally focused grant programs for tracking hate crimes as well as create state hate crime hotlines. Local jurisdictions would have to follow federal hate crime definitions in reporting incidents or be forced to pay back the funds.

During a National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum online panel last week, Rep. Grace Meng, D-New York, and other panelists became teary while discussing derogatory comments people have made about their heritage, or racist oversexualizations — like being compared to Japanese geishas.

“I think that after all these incidents, it’s made us feel like it’s OK to talk about. And sometimes it’s important to talk about the smaller incidents because that will help curb this sort of attitude that might lead to bigger incidents which may cause harm,” Meng said.

“It’s really important for people to realize that we’ve always downplayed these sorts of attitudes that people had toward many of us, and didn’t think it would ever lead to more serious incidents, and part of me regrets that.”

Organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate want Congress to go beyond the hate crimes legislation currently on offer. Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, hopes Congress takes another look at the Civil Rights Act definition of public accommodations.

“We know that discrimination happens outside of just restaurants and hotels, that [it] happens in grocery stores, pharmacies, big box retail. And the federal law has no sort of jurisdiction right now, as we understand it, in those arenas,” Kulkarni said.

Organizers have said the burden falls beyond the federal government. The New York City-based Asian American Federation has pushed city leaders to engage more actively in hate crimes and discrimination directed at Asian Americans.

The organization’s vice president, Joo Han, said government officials at all levels were slow to respond to community concerns as the pandemic swept across the country last year.

“That response was slow, it was muted, it was not adequate,” Han said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.