And White House officials have spent two days working the phones, reaching out to leaders and advocates in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and reaffirming their commitment to fighting anti-Asian hatred.
“What I’m conveying to them is, we want you to be a part of the solution,” Cedric L. Richmond, a White House senior adviser, said in an interview. “You all have been in the community running these programs. We want your expertise, we want your input into how we get past this. But it’s also been an intensive two days of making sure that we’re listening.”
But the flurry of activity comes as the massacre at three spas that left eight people dead is raising new questions about whether Biden has enough people of Asian descent on his staff to fully understand the needs and struggles of the more than 21 million Americans with Asian ancestry.
It is a delicate question for Biden, who has vowed to have a Cabinet that looks like America and has said that equity would be a lodestar of his administration. Nearly two months into his presidency, Biden’s administration only counts two people of Asian ancestry among his top advisers.
Several AAPI leaders said Thursday that they appreciate the White House effort — including forceful statements from Biden and Vice President Harris denouncing the shootings — but that the incident underscores the importance of having Asian representation in the most senior levels of Biden’s administration.
One activist noted that White House officials have been asking AAPI groups for contacts to invite to a listening session with Biden on Friday, adding that it was striking that Biden’s administration did not already have those contacts.
“Did they know who to call immediately? Did they know how to mobilize?” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss private conversations. “They’re very smart people, but they are not people that are connected to the community.”
The person added, “We have worried from the beginning that not having a high-ranking AAPI in a position where they could be walking into [Chief of Staff] Ron Klain’s office and saying, ‘Hey, we kind of have a problem here?’ is a real issue.”
AAPI leaders do say they have detected a more receptive tone from Biden officials in recent days.
White House staffers have been in daily contact with aides to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus since the attacks, for example, according to a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The aide said the tone of the talks between the Biden administration and CAPAC members has become more “supportive and appreciative,” a change from conversations in December and January, when the group was pushing for Biden to nominate an AAPI Cabinet secretary, to no avail.
“That’s a world of difference,” the aide said. “Any one of those [actions] in the last administration would have been significant. So the fact that all of that happened, almost immediately in the last few days, is very significant.”
The AAPI activist, who leads an advocacy group, added that administration officials have at least stopped citing Harris when their groups bring up the need for more Asian representation in Biden’s Cabinet. Many activists had been frustrated that the Biden team would initially cite Harris’s presence as though it eliminated the need for any other Asian American representation.
“We always tell them, ‘We admire the selection. She cannot be our point person for this. That’s not her job, because she’s too busy,’ ” the person said. “She’s vice president, she’s got significant other responsibilities . . . Give us a senior staff person in the White House who gets our issues.”
Harris is of Black and Indian descent. Katherine Tai, who was sworn in Thursday as the U.S. trade representative, is the first Asian American to hold the position since it was created 60 years ago.
Vivek H. Murthy, who served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, has been nominated by Biden for the same role, which is not a Cabinet-level position. Murthy has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.
On Thursday, Biden tapped civil rights lawyer Kiran Arjandas Ahuja to lead the Office of Personnel Management. Ahuja worked in the same office from 2015 to 2017, and before that she led the AAPI initiative in the Obama White House.
Biden also nominated Neera Tanden to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget. She would have been the first AAPI woman to head the agency, and the first Democratic Asian American woman to serve in the Cabinet.
But Tanden withdrew her nomination after drawing bipartisan opposition because of past social media posts that attacked Republican lawmakers. When Tanden was first nominated, AAPI leaders had voiced their concern that she would not be confirmed.
Shekar Narasimhan, chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, was among those who pushed the Biden team for an Asian American Cabinet secretary, only to be disappointed when none were chosen. He is now advocating for Nani Coloretti, a Filipino American and a former deputy secretary of housing and urban development, to be nominated as OMB director in Tanden’s place.
Biden’s Cabinet is the first in more than 20 years not to include any AAPI secretaries.
“Let’s just say we are no longer going to sort of not say where we stand,” Narasimhan said Thursday. “It’s become even more significant . . . and important at this moment in time for us to show that East Asians can be at the highest levels of government.”
Narasimhan said his group also wants concrete actions from the Justice Department to show that they are focusing on hate crimes.
“There should be somebody who’s point on this, who is going to give us information about what’s going on, and show the country that we’re dead serious about doing something,” Narasimhan said. “Which, by the way, means you have to prosecute. And you have to throw the book at some people, right? We haven’t seen that. We have not seen that . . . But now’s the moment.”
Richmond defended Biden’s efforts to have an inclusive group of advisers, and said people of Asian descent have a strong voice in the administration.
He said the roles of Murthy and Tai “are serious positions. They have the ability to influence policy . . . We were proud of the historic nature of the AAPI representation in the Cabinet. We didn’t focus on did a person have just the word ‘secretary’ in their name.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic spread from a market in Wuhan, China, Asian Americans — including in the Atlanta area — have faced escalating harassment and verbal abuse. Words of derision have come from random people on social media and on the street, but also from the nation’s highest office.
Former president Donald Trump repeatedly blamed China for unleashing the virus on the world and tanking the United States’ economy. During his outbursts on the subject, Trump repeatedly used racially charged terms like “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.”
Across the nation, authorities have investigated roughly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian abuse, advocates say. And the Atlanta area, where the killings occurred, has not been spared.
Plaques that read “Wuhan plague” have appeared on buildings in the area. An Asian American schoolteacher and her husband found a slur spray-painted on their car after leaving the movies. An Asian American man on his way to a boba tea shop was told, “Thanks for covid.”
Biden and his surrogates have stressed that he and Harris have repeatedly spoken out against anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic. They also criticized the rhetoric of Trump, saying it dangerously fanned the flames.
In his first televised address as president, Biden condemned “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated. . . . It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop.”
Many Asian Americans, including prominent AAPI legislators, saw Tuesday’s tragedy as an outgrowth of virulent anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes tied to the coronavirus.
Richmond said he often tells Asian American advocates that he empathizes with them, reflecting on discrimination he has faced as a Black man in America. He said he has asked the activists for their input on how to make things better, but also for their patience.
“We can’t erase the last couple of years,” Richmond said. “We just had people storm the Capitol and call Black police officers protecting the Capitol the n-word. Some of it is that you’re not going to be able to change those kinds of views. But we need to isolate them, and they need to not be welcomed to the mainstream.”