Two days after an Atlanta-area shooting left eight dead, including six Asian women, members of a House judiciary subcommittee met to discuss the rise in racist rhetoric and attacks aimed at Asian Americans during the pandemic.

But GOP Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.) decided to focus on a different topic: the right of Republicans to criticize China.

“We shouldn’t be worried about having committee members of Congress policing our rhetoric because some evildoers do engage in some evil activity as has occurred in Atlanta, Georgia,” Roy said. “Because when we start policing free speech, we're doing the very thing that we're condemning when you condemn what the Chinese Communist Party does to their country. Who decides what is hate? Who decides what kind of speech deserves policing?”

The San Antonio-area congressman also seemed to celebrate lynchings, which have a dark and racist history, in urging justice for wrongdoers: “There’s old sayings in Texas about ‘find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree.’ ”

Roy's remarks sparked an immediate and emotional outcry — including a tearful response from Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) — and set the tone for Thursday’s tense and often divisive three-hour hearing, as members battled along partisan lines over the extent of the threats facing Asian Americans and whether Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, were partly to blame.

“Your president, your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other countries that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull's eye on the back of Asian Americans across the country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” Meng said as her voice began to rise and tears filled her eyes. “This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community to find solutions, and we will not let you take our voice away from us.”

The confrontation happened during the first congressional hearing on Asian American discrimination in more than a decade, held by coincidence after Tuesday’s mass slayings, which were allegedly carried out by a White assailant at three Georgia spas.

The hearing quickly became another example of the political fights that have erupted this week over whether the Atlanta shooting constitutes a hate crime.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said he was “deeply saddened” by what he characterized Democrats using the hearing to divide Americans and portray the United States as a racist country.

“If America was such hate filled, discriminatory, racist society filled with animus against Asian Americans, how do you explain the remarkable success of Asian Americans in our country?” he asked, asserting that the community faces the fewest prejudice-driven attacks and makes the most income of any ethnic group.

“Any racist sentiments, speech or act needs to be vigorously condemned,” he continued, “but to attack our society as systemically racist, a society that has produced the most prosperous and most harmonious racial society in human history, well that’s an insult and it’s flat out wrong.”

Many Democrats say a steady rise in attacks focused on Asian Americans during the pandemic has been due in part to divisive rhetoric from Republicans, including Trump’s descriptions of the coronavirus as the “China virus” and “kung flu.” In a Fox News interview on the same night of the Atlanta shootings, the former president complained that the “China virus” had tanked the U.S. economy.

Shirin Sinnar, a professor at Stanford Law School, testified that Trump’s “racist dog whistles” repeatedly retweeted by millions created “ripple effects across society at large” that have affected the Asian American community.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), pushing back on Roy’s claims of censorship, said there are catastrophic consequences to using racist language targeting a specific community.

“It’s not about policing speech. I served in active duty, so you can say whatever you want on the First Amendment,” Lieu, who served in the Air Force, said. “You can say racist, stupid stuff if you want. But I’m asking you to please stop using racist terms like ‘kung flu’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ or other ethnic identifiers and describe them as a virus. I am not a virus.”

Two Asian American Republicans from California, Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, focused on the rise in violence directed at members of their community.

“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,” Kim said. “The virus does not discriminate.”

While no Republican on the committee defended Trump’s specific language to characterize the coronavirus during the hearing, some congressional Republicans do continue to use phrases like “China virus,” a term Trump took credit for during the Fox News interview. Republicans said Democrats urging them to stop criticizing China for failing to contain the coronavirus is part of broader liberal attempts to “cancel” their opinions from being heard.

Erika Lee, who teaches history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, testified that conflating Asian Americans with foreign governments, like targeting Japanese Americans as the enemy during World War II, “has been an age-old way” of denigrating the community that leads to a rise of racist attacks. “This is one of the ways American racism works,” she said.

John C. Yang, president executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said using ethnic identifiers to describe the virus has “no medical benefit” and only dehumanizes a community.

“We have no free speech right to yell fire in a crowded theater, and what is happening is that the Asian Americans are in a crowded theater where we are being endangered,” he said. “Regardless of free speech, all of us as leaders have an obligation to model behavior that we want our community to follow.”

Democrats said they are working on introducing legislation that would create an office in the Justice Department to specifically focus on Asian American discrimination. Rep. Judy Chu (R-Calif.) became emotional, her voice shaking as she urged Congress to pass the measure.

“It is time that we continue to push back against xenophobia every time it rears its ugly head,” she said. “Asian Americans must not be used as scapegoats in times of crisis. Lives are at stake.”