Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s bestselling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
For the Asian American community, this has been a horrific week in a horrific month of a horrific year. Twelve months ago, triggered by the anti-Asian rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and many of his inner circle, Asians began reporting that we were experiencing a surge in racist verbal assaults and online slurs. But over time focus faded from the bubbling toxicity surrounding our community, swept away by the wild carnival of an election that culminated in a violent insurrection in our nation’s capital.
What never went away was the vulnerability of our community to harm, as we’ve seen in recent eruptions of violence against Asians in California and New York, and in the devastating attacks against Asian spas in Georgia.
The Atlanta shootings – horrific, heartbreaking and devastating – left eight dead, six of them Asian women. They reflected a dangerous pattern that many have seen in the growing number of episodes of anti-Asian violence: many of those targeted have been immigrants, and two-thirds of them have been female.
“No matter how you spin it, the facts remain the same: 6 Asian women are dead, and this was a deliberate and targeted attack on our community,” said Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen, in a statement following the attack.
While police have not yet established motive, the shootings appear to be a direct extension of America’s long and deep history of racist misogyny and colonial exploitation – a history that’s alive and well and continues to threaten us today, even as we mourn the passing of the dead, and fear for our beloved community.
It’s that larger threat that the federal government needs to address, not by nibbling at the edges, but by going big, as President Joe Biden has vowed to do in his administration’s efforts to make real and lasting change.
As National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) Georgia organizing manager Bianca Jyotishi, one of the Asian American community leaders who met in Atlanta with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last Friday, pointed out in an interview with CNN, “We’ve seen a spike (in anti-Asian bias) since Covid19 started, but it’s nothing new for us… (because) the root issue here is White supremacy….We have to carve out a space for people to exist.”
But what does that look like for Asian Americans? It begins with having an administration that actually cares about our problems – in sharp contrast to the one that ended in January 2021. As Georgia State Representative Sam Park told me after the meeting, “When we met with them, President Biden’s empathy and understanding were comforting, and Vice President Harris’ strength and determination were encouraging. Their commitment to continue to fight for all of us gave me hope. They reminded us that we are all in this together, that we are not alone, and that together we will overcome.”
In the wake of the Friday meeting, Biden called for quick passage of the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, vowing to sign it as soon as the Senate gets it to his desk. The act would ensure that the federal government tracks Covid-related acts of bias, provides support to state and local governments on hate-crime reporting and creates a Department of Justice position specifically focused on that effort.
It’s an important bill, and it should be turned into law. But tracking crimes that have already happened doesn’t protect future victims. It doesn’t address the gaps that isolate Asian Americans from other marginalized communities. And it directs funding and resources toward law enforcement bodies rather than toward victims, advocacy organizations and at-risk neighborhoods.
That’s why Asian American community leaders are pressing Biden to go further: Over 180 Asian American organizations came together to sign a letter asking the administration to add $300 million toward fighting anti-Asian discrimination and boosting longer-term safety and resilience for Asian communities in the next federal budget. More specifically, the letter asks the federal government to give direct grants to groups aiding victims and survivors; dedicate funds toward hate crime awareness and mental health support; allocate resources for crisis intervention and violence prevention; provide new money to support Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) essential workers; and create a White-House-level interagency task force to coordinate federal initiatives with AAPI advocacy efforts on the ground.
Three hundred million dollars is an extremely small amount when compared to the trillions of dollars spent on Covid relief and recovery efforts in the year. But it could be one of the largest sums ever dedicated to the direct needs of Asian American communities. More importantly, it addresses not just acts of bias, but the bigger context of why we’re vulnerable to those acts.
We’re glad the White House is listening. But the President has a unique opportunity to act, by backing a set of measures that look forward, not back, committing resources that won’t just fade as soon as the vortex of an emergent crisis like the one we’re facing today dissipates.
As the groups behind the letter wrote: “Anti-Asian hate and all forms of racism are a part of the American experience, past and present. But they don’t need to be part of our future. What we do now matters for our families and communities – today and in the long run.”