Asian American lawmakers said at a heated hearing Thursday that Republicans’ rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic “put a bull’s-eye” on their backs.
Republicans responded by accusing Democrats of trying to criminalize free speech and using unrelated crimes as a political cudgel.
The Asian American lawmakers, who were all Democrats, assailed former President Donald Trump and his GOP colleagues for using terms such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu” to refer to the virus that causes COVID-19, saying the inflammatory rhetoric caused a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s-eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country,” said Rep. Grace Meng, New York Democrat.
Attacks on Asian Americans have increased over the past year, according to two recent studies. While the attacks have paralleled an overall increase in violent crime, witnesses detailed incidents were people were lit on fire, assaulted, and even killed because of their ethnicity.
Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican, warned Democrats not to venture into “the policing of rhetoric” rather than “taking out bad guys” who carried out attacks.
“We are making crimes out of speech as opposed to making crimes out of the actions of evildoers,” he said.
Mr. Roy‘s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat and an immigrant from Taiwan who served in the Air Force.
“I served active duty so you can say whatever you want under the First Amendment. You can say racist, stupid stuff if you want,” Mr. Lieu said. “But I’m asking you to please stop using racist terms like ‘Kung flu’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ or other ethnic identities in describing this virus. I am not a virus and when you say things like that, it hurts the Asian American community.”
The hearing by a House Judiciary subcommittee follows a reported rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and a shooting spree Tuesday targeting Asian workers at Atlanta-area massage businesses. The shooting killed six Asian women and two White people.
Suspect Robert Aaron Long is charged with eight counts of murder. Police say he told them that the shootings were not motivated by racism but based on his “addiction to sex.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat, said shootings were the “inevitable culmination” of heated rhetoric against Asian Americans.
A study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University said hate crimes targeting Asian Americans rose 150% since the first coronavirus cases were reported, though the raw numbers — from 49 to 122 — are not large in the context of a nation with 330 million people and an Asian community of nearly 20 million.
Stop AAPI Hate, a group advocating against violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said that report severely underestimates the attacks. The group said it received 3,795 reports of hate incidents aimed at Asian Americans in the past year.
“Our community is bleeding. We’ve been in pain and we’ve been screaming out for help,” Ms. Meng said.
Democrats seized on those statistics in their bid to connect Mr. Trump to the attacks. They say he blamed Asian Americans to distract from “his own flawed response” to the coronavirus crisis.
“Even though Donald Trump is no longer president, I believe the most recent round of attacks are the aftermath of one year of hateful attacks and four years of ugly comments about immigrants and people of color,” said Rep. Judy Chu, California Democrat.
Mr. Roy fired back at Democrats, accusing them of using the Atlanta killings and unrelated crimes as a political cudgel to exacerbate cancel culture.
“Who decides what is hate? Who decides what is the kind of speech that deserves policing? A panel of this body? A panel in the executive branch? A panel at the Justice Department?” he asked.
“When we start policing free speech, we are doing the very thing that we are condemning when we condemn what the Chinese Communist Party does to their country,” Mr. Roy continued. “That is exactly where this wants to go and nothing could be more dangerous than going down that road.”