WASHINGTON – Amy Chomthakham and several friends went to a massage parlor outside Atlanta for the first time in a year two days before a gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian, in several spas in the region.

Chomthakham, a Laotian immigrant active in local community groups, wanted to use her birthday to support local Laotian businesses — restaurants and massage parlors that have struggled amid the coronavirus pandemic. Then the shootings happened.

“I was kind of frozen for a minute. That could have been us,” Chomthakham said of her reaction to hearing about the shootings.

Prosecutors have not said whether they plan to pursue hate crime charges against the alleged shooter. However, since then, Chomthakham has limited leaving her house even more than usual during the pandemic. Only quick trips, she said, and only during the middle of the day. She’s talked to community members who warn their parents against leaving the house at all.

Many Asian Americans believe the shooting targeted their community, part of a rising tide of hate crimes, discrimination and other actions against immigrants amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., believes former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the coronavirus fueled the behavior. She and other congressional leaders are pushing for Congress to pass new hate crimes legislation.

“People have a great deal of fear. Many people have some kind of story about being called an ugly name, or somebody shouting ‘coronavirus’ at them or even being pushed,” Chu said, noting violent attacks in her district and elsewhere.

The organization Stop AAPI Hate has received more than 3,800 reports of incidents ranging from shunning and verbal harassment to assault from March 2020 to Feb. 28. Federal hate crime statistics for 2020 have not yet been released.

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People hold signs while participating in a “stop Asian hate” rally outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday afternoon, March 20. AP Photo/Ben Gray

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.

Congressional proposals

Chu, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, has pushed for the House to pass a pair of bills; one to tighten hate crime reporting standards and another to force the Justice Department to address hate crimes tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., 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 currently 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.”

President Joe 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.

Chu and others have criticized the existing federal hate crime reporting act for lacking an enforcement mechanism and relying on state definitions of hate crime. Several states — Arkansas, Wyoming and South Carolina — have no hate crime statutes, according to the Justice Department, and 16 others do not mandate any reporting.

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.

High profile acts of violence have drawn much of lawmakers’ focus, but another trend has also emerged: Asian Americans sharing their own stories of discrimination.

Through in-person events and rallies and online forums, Asian Americans have started talking through decades of disparaging comments, discrimination and ill treatment they say they’ve held in too long.

During a National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum online panel last week, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., 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 like 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.

Other local organizers, such as Chomthakham, have pushed the Gwinnett County government in Georgia to issue statements decrying discrimination and hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Chomthakham recently faced a tough decision when organizers set up an anti-hate rally in Atlanta a few days after the shooting. She said it seemed like a perfect target for someone aiming to hurt more Asian Americans. But she also felt compelled to participate because of her work with other Laotian immigrants. She wanted to serve as an example to the community.

“I went, and I’m glad that I went, because that experience brought out support that you wouldn’t think you would have gotten from the non Asian communities,” Chomthakham said.

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