After eight people — six of them Asian women — were gunned down Tuesday at three spas in Atlanta and a neighboring county, calls have been mounting for a reckoning with the way Asians are characterized and treated in this country. Over the past year there has been a widespread outcry for an end to the anti-Asian violence that data says has become increasingly common in part because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When members of a House Judiciary subcommittee discussed the rise in attacks Thursday, there was sizable focus on the role of rhetoric implicating Asians in the cause and spread of the coronavirus.
“This should not have to be said, but I want to be very clear: No American of any race or ethnic group is responsible for the covid-19 pandemic,” said Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.). “The virus does not discriminate.”
Trump used the phrase “China virus” on Fox News the same night as the Atlanta killings. And some of the most visible and high-profile GOP leaders have passed on the opportunity to publicly speak out against the anti-Asian language that has become much more prevalent, partly because of the former president’s rhetoric.
Rep. Chip Roy (R.-Tex.) was criticized for appearing to glorify lynching at the hearing while discussing how justice should be delivered. The language was viewed as insensitive considering that the largest mass lynching in U.S. history was against Chinese immigrants and motivated by anti-Asian racism. But the lawmaker refused to back off.
“Apparently some folks are freaking out that I used an old expression about finding all the rope in Texas and a tall oak tree about carrying out justice against bad guys," he said in a statement Thursday. “I meant it. We need more justice and less thought policing.”
And when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was asked whether he regrets his past use of the phrase “China virus” he engaged in some whataboutism.
“I don’t know, does CNN regret that?" he responded at a news conference. “Does the Democratic committee that started out regret that? I would wait to see why the shooter did what he did. But the virus came from China, and I think the knowledge we had at the time is exactly that. I don’t think people from the standpoint should go after any Asian, from any shape or form, and I condemn every action to that.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his wife, Elaine Chao, the first Asian American woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet, both condemned violence after the shootings. But neither spoke of the rhetoric that many of their fellow Republicans use that researchers say leads to violence.
A year ago this week, Trump first tweeted “Chinese virus” after the World Health Organization urged people not to use terms like “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus" out of concern that it could lead to hateful words and violence against Asians.
Researchers later found that Trump’s tweet led to a significant increase in the use of #chinesevirus as well as other anti-Asian phrases.
“The week before Trump’s tweet the dominant term [on Twitter] was #covid-19,” Yulin Hswen, an epidemiology professor at the University of California at San Francisco and a co-author of the study, told The Washington Post. “The week after his tweet, it was #chinesevirus.”
Other Republican lawmakers have condemned racially motivated violence since Tuesday’s events, which is not surprising. Most people in Washington would consider the killings indefensible. But some on the right have shown an unwillingness to alter their language or really contemplate the connection between words and action. While frustrating for some on the opposite side of the aisle, that response has been pretty consistent with a prominent one in modern-day conservatism: that any pushback is “language policing” and a call to be “politically correct." However, as these incidents continue, so will efforts to educate Americans that words and social media hashtags are not just that and, in fact, have real-world repercussions.