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Rep. Grace Meng on fighting COVID-19 and hatred aimed at Asian Americans

‘People are begging their parents and grandparents not to leave the house’

New York Rep. Grace Meng says the Atlanta spa shootings represented a turning point in public acknowledgment of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
New York Rep. Grace Meng says the Atlanta spa shootings represented a turning point in public acknowledgment of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate has bipartisan votes scheduled for Wednesday on a bill sponsored by Hawaii Democrat Mazie K. Hirono to address a rise in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

New York Rep. Grace Meng, who introduced the House version of Hirono’s measure as well as a resolution condemning anti-Asian sentiment, said at a recent news conference that the AAPI community may be more fearful of violence associated with the pandemic than the deadly virus itself.

A fifth-term Democrat who represents a diverse portion of the Queens borough of New York City, Meng said “outrageous” attacks in her district have continued for months. Last year, another resolution from Meng that condemned anti-Asian hate passed with bipartisan support, although some Republicans accused Democrats of using it to attack President Donald Trump. Meng and other Democratic leaders have said Trump’s rhetoric around the virus contributed to the spike in incidents.

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“This is about the safety of all Americans. It’s about people’s lives and their right to be safe. It’s about our parents and grandparents, walking down the street safely. It’s about our kids being able to go to school and play outside without fearing that they’ll be harassed,” Meng said.

In February, an Asian American woman was pushed to the ground outside a bakery in her district. Last month, a man was arrested after beating a woman in front of an apartment building near Times Square. Others have been attacked throughout the city and throughout the country, including a series of shootings at spas in the Atlanta area in March that killed eight, including six women of Asian descent.

CQ Roll Call talked with Meng shortly after the Atlanta shootings about the rise in violence and discrimination against Asian Americans, as well as what she and others in Congress plan to do about it. An edited transcript follows.

Q. How do you feel about the increase in hate crimes and other incidents directed at Asian Americans?

A. Well, obviously this is an issue that has been going on for a while, for about a year now. We’ve seen an increased number of these types of incidents against Asian Americans throughout the country — approximately 3,800 have been reported. But we all know there are many more because we all hear from everyday people who tell us that something happened to them. They just don’t report it. 

In recent weeks, people have been paying a lot more attention, partly because the victims were elderly. People just really seemed to pay more attention because how could people do that to someone who reminds me of my grandma, my grandfather, my parents?

And right after that the tragedies in Atlanta happened, where six of the eight victims were Asian women, I feel like that really broke that dam, and people from every corner of the country and from different backgrounds have all been reaching out to the community, and we are very encouraged by all the outreach.

Q. What are you hearing from your constituents, given that many of these incidents have been reported in big cities like New York?

A. I bet they’re happening in other parts of the country too. We just have more people who might be taping these incidents. We have reporters who have that sort of familiarity with the communities and are covering it more. I would suspect they’re happening all around as well, but you’re right, a couple of the incidents happened in my own congressional district, and people are really scared. 

I know people are begging their parents and grandparents not to leave the house. I know a lot of people go buy groceries for their older relatives so that they don’t have to leave the house. And in recent weeks, with these increased numbers of incidents that we’ve seen in New York, people are telling their kids not to play outside because they don’t want them to get bullied, which is hard because it’s nice out. 

Right now, people are just really scared. I would say that there’s almost a sense of people being more scared to get attacked than they are to get COVID.

Q. What have you heard from your colleagues about their response to these incidents?

A. I’m really thankful that we were able to pass the resolution last year. We’re working on two bills that go hand in hand. The NO HATE Act and the COVID Hate Crimes Act. These bills together would provide more money to community groups, establish dedicated personnel at the Department of Justice to handle these types of cases, and help local law enforcement make it easier to report these cases. We’re thankful to President Biden and Sen. [Charles E.] Schumer for expressing support. Sen. Hirono is the Senate sponsor.

I’ve also heard a lot from many of my colleagues during the past few weeks. I’m thankful for this — and these are non-Asian members. A lot of them are doing events in their district, reaching out to the Asian American community, providing space for Asian Americans to talk about how they feel and what they want to see from their government leaders. So I’m really thankful that my colleagues are doing that.

Q. How has the pandemic affected how you and other members of AAPI communities have dealt with these attacks?

A. In recent weeks, and recent days, the Asian American community has really, in a public way, realized that it can’t stay silent anymore, that the community wants to speak out. People have been talking about their childhood and things that happened to them throughout their lives that they never spoke up about.

There’s just the realization that we have to speak out, not just for ourselves but to prevent these incidents from happening to other people. This sort of realization has actually been easier to handle on Zoom. Almost every day, I’m a part of various conversations where people from across the country are gathering in these virtual spaces. They’re able to talk about their experiences, and we’re able to do it with a couple hundred people in one virtual room, and that might actually be harder to do in person. So COVID restrictions in some ways have made it easier to come together in a faster way with people, with a community, across the country.

Q. Outside of hate crimes legislation, how do you and others plan to address the problems AAPI communities have faced?

A. Saying that out loud and lifting up these different people in the community and just the economic struggles that they might be going through is really important too. Passing legislation like the American Rescue Plan will, in the long term, be helpful for a lot of these families, particularly pieces of the legislation lifting families out of poverty, allowing people to have more of a cushion. 

Also, parts of the legislation provide more money for community groups because these are the groups that are on the ground every single day. When someone needs help, whether it’s mental health, rental assistance, all sorts of help, they will go to these local organizations to ask for support. They trust these organizations. So we want to make sure that they are able to help the community in a more effective way. 

And then also a smaller piece that’s important, which is technically part of the [hate crimes] legislation, but really done on a local level, is to make it easier for people to report these incidents. I’ve met more people who didn’t report than who have reported right when something happens to them. Sometimes there are language obstacles. People might not want to take time to go to the local police precinct. People have to go to work, people have to take their mom to the doctor. So if there were easier ways for people to report these incidents, we could get a fuller picture of what’s going on.

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