Will U.S. officials act to stop rising hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 era?

Asian American leaders around the U.S. are calling on government officials to put an end to the rising crimes against their community members. The demand comes after the mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people. Co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council Manjusha Kulkarni joined CBSN to explain how sexism and misogyny played a role in Tuesday's attack and how more people can be better allies to Asian Americans.

Video Transcript

- We're learning more about the victims of Tuesday's attack in Atlanta. Officials identified the remaining victims Friday night. Mourners have built memorials to them in Atlanta. Many are now calling for an end to hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. CBS News Senior White House correspondent Weijia Zhang looks at the disturbing rise of violence and harassment.

WEIJIA ZHANG: Mike Nguyen was stunned to see this at his ramen shop in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, the words kung flu, commie, and I hope you die covering the windows.

MIKE NGUYEN: I definitely believe that it's definitely a hate crime.

WEIJIA ZHANG: Nguyen said the vandalism came after he publicly criticized Texas governor Greg Abbott's decision to lift a mask mandate.

MIKE NGUYEN: --is putting a lot of us in danger, you know. At a time where we need him to be a leader, he's not being a leader.

WEIJIA ZHANG: A two-time cancer survivor, Nguyen was worried about his customers' health. Now he's worried about his own.

MIKE NGUYEN: Next escalation is going to be either physical harm or even totally fatal. So you know, that's very worrisome for me.

WEIJIA ZHANG: So you worry that you could lose your life?

MIKE NGUYEN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, people have, you know, threatened my life. They say, I hope you die, you know. People say that they want to find where I live and burn down my house.

WEIJIA ZHANG: The advocacy group STOP AAPI HATE has recorded nearly 4,000 crimes against Asian-Americans since the start of the pandemic, an increase of about 150% in major US cities. This week alone, a 76-year-old grandmother in San Francisco is recovering after fighting off her attacker. And this 59-year-old man was brutally beaten, nearly blinded in one eye.

JOE BIDEN: Too many Asian-Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake.

WEIJIA ZHANG: On Friday, President Biden met with Asian-American leaders in Atlanta to talk about solutions to combat the violence that just claimed eight lives in their city, including six Asian women. Georgia State legislature Michelle Au.

MICHELLE AU: --the obvious, the last administration clearly, clearly promoted and fomented a culture of anti Asian-American and anti-immigrant animus. Now with the Biden administration, he clearly is invested in listening to this issue.

WEIJIA ZHANG: And Thursday on Capitol Hill, lawmakers held a hearing about the surge in attacks.

- Asian-Americans must not be used as scapegoats in times of crisis. Lives are at stake. And it's critical that Congress takes bold action to address this pandemic of discrimination and hate.

WEIJIA ZHANG: Texas Congressman Chip Roy questioned if a crime should be linked to hate.

CHIP ROY: Because who decides what is hate? Who decides what is the kind of speech that deserves policing?

WEIJIA ZHANG: Roy also defended the use of anti-Chinese rhetoric to describe the virus.

CHIP ROY: I'm not going to be ashamed of saying I oppose the Chi Comms.

WEIJIA ZHANG: New York Congresswoman Grace Meng fired back.

GRACE MENG: This hearing was to address the hurt and pain of our community and to find solutions. And we will not let you take our voice away from us.

WEIJIA ZHANG: Meng introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act after racist voicemails flooded her office.

- Chinese virus. Kung flu. [BLEEP] you, kung flu. [BLEEP] you.

WEIJIA ZHANG: In Los Angeles, Denny Kim heard similar slurs while walking down a sidewalk last month.

- They started calling me Chinese virus. They started calling me a [BLEEP]. They started calling me a [BLEEP].

WEIJIA ZHANG: Kim, a Korean-American and a US Air Force veteran, said the assault quickly turned physical.

- The assailants, when they were beating me up on the ground, they told me that they wanted to kill me.

WEIJIA ZHANG: Now both he and Nguyen are pleading for more protection.

MIKE NGUYEN: I think what needs to happen is more awareness, you know, and actual charging people with hate crimes, showing that we're not gonna-- this is not tolerable.

- And I feel like President Biden really needs to protect Asian-Americans right now. If you're listening to me, if you're watching this right now, sir, I need you to help my people, sir, because we're getting shot and killed, sir.

WEIJIA ZHANG: President Biden says he does support Congressman Meng's COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would require a faster federal response to review and track all of these attacks. Meanwhile, a group of nearly 200 organizations is calling on the White House to provide $300 million to help the victims and to give more resources to combating this violence.

- For more on this, let's bring in Manjusha Kulkarni. Manjusha is the cofounder of STOP AAPI HATE and the executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. Manjusha, what do you make of the response from government officials? Do you think they've gone far enough in condemning this attack? Or can they be doing better?

MANJUSHA KULKARNI: Well, I think there's a lot we can do right now. And these are first steps. So we very much appreciate President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris going down to Atlanta, meeting with families of the victims and also advocates who represent those communities. And I think potentially, you know, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes bill offers some opportunities as well.

What we encourage folks to do, though, is to think more broadly. Like the letter that's been issued said, we need resources right now for our communities. And we need really to build a civil rights infrastructure to begin to look at this problem and tackle it head on.

- You mentioned Vice President Kamala Harris. She's the country's first Asian woman to hold the office of vice president. What does the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community need to see from her?

MANJUSHA KULKARNI: Well, it's wonderful to have her in this position. And I think she definitely understand what our communities are going through, especially given that she's both African-American as well as South Asian. So that's just in and of itself an important thing for our communities. And what we heard yesterday from her is that understanding of our history and knowing that this is not the first time that Asian-Americans have been attacked. Sadly, it's been something that's been with us since the 1800s and so to really understand it in that context and to think about what the solutions are in this moment.

- Manjusha, have you seen sexism and misogyny in the response to this attack?

MANJUSHA KULKARNI: There's no question that some of the responses have been problematic. We know from that first press conference that law enforcement held on Wednesday that there were issues around who to believe, right, that we are to take the perpetrator at face value when he said that it was not a racist incident, that we were not, you know, that we were to believe and accept what he says in terms of his sex addiction or that he had a bad day.

When I was testifying in front of Congress on Thursday, Daniel Dae Kim was with me and said, you know, when I have a bad day, I have a beer and spend some time with my family. I don't shoot up several people and target Asian-American women when I'm having a bad day.

- How does that response reflects what Asian-American women face every day in the US? It's such an important question because what we see is, you know, there is this sexual violence that women are experiencing. When we look at our data at STOP AAPI HATE, 68% of those reporting to us are in fact Asian-American women.

So what we know from that is that we as Asian-American women are really bearing the brunt of some of this hate and violence. And so I think for that reason too, we-- we understand that, from the MeToo movement, that sexual violence happens to so many women in our country. It's practically ubiquitous. And so we add-- when we add on the layer of race to gender, we see how it gets perpetrated in acts like the one in Atlanta.

- Manjusha, you know former President Trump made some blatantly racist comments when talking about the coronavirus. But hate against Asian-Americans was around long before he took office. Do you feel the history of Asian discrimination is not addressed enough in our country?

MANJUSHA KULKARNI: We have been so invisibilized. Even just the fact that we had the first hearing on Thursday since 1987, think about that, that Asian-American issues have not been brought to Congress since that time. I think it does speak to the fact that our communities have been ignored and neglected. And there is an opportunity now to change that, to listen to what our community members are saying, to hear their calls for action, and then begin to take that action.

- Several states are planning to hold a national day of action on March 27 to address hate against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. What do you hope to see from community leaders? And how can we be better allies across the country to Asian communities going forward?

MANJUSHA KULKARNI: Well, first off, in terms of being better allies, I think, you know, for each and every one of us, there are steps we can take right now. We need to say something when we see something. When we see discrimination or refusal of service at a grocery store, say something to the manager. If we see comments that are being made, try to offer support to individuals who've been targeted, and if you feel comfortable saying to the other individual, the perpetrator, hey, this is not OK. This is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in our communities.

And, finally, I think there's an opportunity for all of us to go to our city councils, go to our state legislators, and demand action at local and state levels as well. And what we want to hear from lawmakers is that they're going to do something about it. Words matter, and words can help. But action is even more important today.

- Manjusha Kulkarni, thank you for your time and your insight.

MANJUSHA KULKARNI: Thank you so much.