PRESIDENT Joe Biden signed four executive orders on Tuesday, January 26 aimed at pushing racial equity, including one to combat xenophobia and racism against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), which has heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I firmly believe the nation is ready to change but government has to change as well. We need to make equity and justice part of what we do every day, today, tomorrow and every day,” Biden said in his remarks, following a campaign promise to address racial inequities.
The directive acknowledges the role that rhetoric from political leaders, “including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin,” has played in the rise in xenophobia and hate incidents targeting AAPIs.
“This is unacceptable and it’s un-American,” the president said, referencing the attacks against the community.
In an April 2020 interview, Vice President Kamala Harris, a California senator at the time, said the previous administration’s usage of anti-Asian connotations associated with the virus was “absolutely irresponsible” and “born out of ignorance.”
“What we have to do as leaders is remind people, they are not alone and encourage them to report these crimes because they are crimes and that we have to advocate to say there needs to be investigation and prosecution,” Harris previously told the Asian Journal.
The xenophobic references included “China virus” or “kung flu,” despite World Health Organization guidance on naming diseases to minimize negative effects on nations, economies and people.
The order now calls on agencies to remove language in actions or documents that “exhibit or contribute to racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”
The Department of Justice is further directed to expand the collection of data and public reporting regarding hate incidents against community members.
Last year, in the absence of federal data collection, advocacy groups like STOP AAPI Hate — founded by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department — created a reporting site where individuals could document an incident in English or another language.
From March 19 to December 31, 2020, the group told the Asian Journal that it received 2,808 reported incidents of racism and discrimination targeting community members. During that period up until October 28 of last year, 245 incidents were in Los Angeles County alone.
“Since the start of the pandemic, the Asian American community has struggled not only with the COVID-19 pandemic, but with a climate of increasing fear and discrimination. Thousands of us have been the victims of racist attacks, with the knowledge that much of the racist hate we face has been fueled by leaders in our government, including the former president,” the group said in a statement.
It added that it was “relieved” that this is one of the early actions but said the Biden-Harris administration should “take bold action” by reversing other executive orders from the Trump era.
Among the group’s recommendations is to expand civil rights protections for individuals experiencing discrimination, for the U.S. Attorney General to investigate and initiate civil actions on anti-AAPI hate, and to ensure passage of the Jabara-Heyers NO HATE Act.
The Filipino American community has experienced its share of hateful incidents, as reported by the Asian Journal. For example, in one viral video, a Fil-Am woman was verbally harassed while exercising at a Torrance, California park. Another recorded incident over the Fourth of July weekend showed a family being told by a white man that “You f***ing Asians” and “Trump’s gonna f*** you” while they were having dinner at a Carmel Valley restaurant.
The order also guides the Department of Health and Human Services and the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to consider issuing guidance describing best practices to advance cultural competency, language access and sensitivity towards the communities in the government’s pandemic response.
While several AAPI organizations recognized the order as a step in the right direction, they are calling on the administration to do more in addressing the health disparities within the communities.
Brendan Flores, national chair and president of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) said in a statement that AAPIs and Native Hawaiians are not a monolith and each community has different needs amid the pandemic.
“The Filipino American community, in many areas across the country, has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this past year has amplified pre-existing health disparities in our community,” Flores said, citing the pandemic’s burden Filipino American health care workers. “NaFFAA echoes the concerns of NCAPA for our AANHPI brothers and sisters, and calls upon the Biden Administration to provide much-needed relief to the Filipino American community, especially to our healthcare workers serving tireless hours on the frontlines during this pandemic.”
The president also signed orders on Tuesday to redress the country’s history of discriminatory housing practices and policies, to not renew the Department of Justice’s contracts with private prisons, and to re-establish a commitment to tribal sovereignty and consultation.
With the four new directives, Biden has so far signed 37 orders since taking office on January 20.