President Biden and Vice President Harris called for unity after attacks against Asian Americans have surged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are simply some core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans,” Biden said during a speech at Emory University in Atlanta on Friday. “One of them is standing together against hate, against racism, the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation.”
Biden’s remarks came three days after a gunman opened fire at three massage businesses in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
While the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Georgia, told investigators that the shootings were not racially motivated, physical violence and verbal harassment against members of the Asian American community have spiked over the past year.
“Whatever the motivation, we know this, too many Asian Americans walking up and down the streets are worried,” Biden said. “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated, harassed, they’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed.”
The president said that these incidents are evidence that “words have consequences.”
Hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States increased 149% in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. That increase roughly tracks with the COVID-19 pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s efforts to blame China for spreading the coronavirus, repeatedly referring to it as the “China virus,” “China plague” and “Kung flu.”
Harris, who joined Biden during the trip to Atlanta, called Tuesday’s shooting rampage a “heinous act of violence” that has no place in Georgia or the United States.
She also said that the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes is a reminder that racism, xenophobia and sexism is real in America and “always has been.”
Biden and Harris met with local leaders of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community behind closed doors during their visit to Georgia’s capital. The president also called on Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.
The previously planned visit to Atlanta had initially been intended as a victory lap for the passage of the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which won approval in the closely divided Senate thanks to Democratic victories in two Georgia runoff elections.
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To honor the victims, Biden on Thursday ordered the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff at the White House and all federal buildings and installations.
In Atlanta, Biden and Harris also visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where they received an update on efforts to fight COVID-19.
White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling on Air Force One that Biden will offer support for Asian Americans in the state and across the country and talk about his commitment to battling xenophobia and hatred.
The president wants to hear about the impact of the violent incident from local elected officials, she said.
In an interview that aired on NPR member station WABE, Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, who is of East Asian descent, said Tuesday’s shooting rampage is symbolic of a larger problem.
“I’d like to point out that this latest event on Tuesday, and even the escalating discrimination and violence we have seen over the past year with the development of the coronavirus pandemic, is simply the newest chapter in a very old story,” Au said.
Following this week’s shootings, Au issued a statement, saying, “We need help, we need protection, and we need people to stand up against hate.”