In a memorandum issued Tuesday, the Biden administration said the federal government "must recognize that it has played a role in furthering xenophobic sentiments"

By Virginia Chamlee
January 28, 2021 12:12 AM
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President Joe Biden signed executive orders in the Oval Office soon after he was sworn in
| Credit: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

In a memorandum issued Tuesday, President Joe Biden acknowledged and condemned the anti-Asian bias and discrimination that has been on the rise in parts of the world amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"The Federal Government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin," a statement released by the administration reads.

He echoed that view in a speech on Tuesday while he signed additional executive orders to, he said, address racial inequality.

"Today, I'm directing federal agencies to combat resurgence of xenophobia, particularly against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, that we've seen skyrocket during this pandemic," Biden said Tuesday. "This is unacceptable and it's un-American. I've asked the Department of Justice to strengthen its partnership with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community to prevent those hate crimes."

He continued: "I've also asked the Department of Health and Human Services to put out best practices for combating xenophobia in our national response to COVID."

The memorandum directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to consider issuing guidance on "advancing cultural competency, language access, and sensitivity towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the context of the Federal Government's COVID-19 response."

It also directs the Department of Justice to engage with AAPI communities on issues related to hate crimes, hate incidents, and harassment.

The memorandum is the latest in a series of direct rebukes to the Trump administration's policies made in Biden's first week in office.

Former President Donald Trump often referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus," in direct contradiction of his top health officials. The phrase received widespread backlash for equating the virus to an ethnicity and specific country. (The first notable outbreak of the virus was reported in China.)

"Ethnicity is not what causes the novel coronavirus," then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a congressional hearing last February.

There have been multiple reported instances of violence against Asians in countries around the world in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus, underlining the risk of attaching a virus or disease to a particular country or ethnicity.

In October, the United Nations issued a report citing the rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, adding that Trump's rhetoric was "essentially legitimizing a climate where certain groups are wrongfully associated with a virus that affects everybody equally."

In a statement issued after Biden announced his memorandum, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), an affiliation of five independent Asian American civil rights groups, said it applauded the decision.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders including the former President and current members of Congress have repeatedly used racist rhetoric such as the 'China virus,' 'China plague,' and 'kung flu' when referring to COVID-19, which has stoked xenophobia and led to increased racism and discrimination against Asian Americans who are being wrongly blamed for COVID-19," the statement read.

The group added that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has been "disproportionately affected by the pandemic and faced higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths than white Americans."

"Racist and xenophobic language should have no place in our government documents or policy," AAAJ's statement read. "It should have no place in our society at all."

Though some Asian-American groups have lauded Biden's Tuesday announcement, his administration has also received criticism from the Asian American community for what they call the lack of Asian representation in his Cabinet selections.

As Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies CEO Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke noted in a recent statement, every presidential Cabinet since 2000 has included an Asian American, until now. 

"The AAPI demographic is the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States electorate. The lack of an AAPI Cabinet Secretary only serves to further distance AAPIs from having their voice heard in public policy," Xuan-Trang Mielke said.

She continued: "President-elect Biden promised an administration that would 'look like' America ... Cabinet Secretaries serve a key role at the decision-making table while inspiring new generations of AAPIs to enter public service and participate in our civic process. The brazen exclusion of AAPIs in this incoming administration abandons and erases the AAPI community."

The Biden administration has touted the diversity of its cabinet for its inclusion of a number of groundbreaking appointments.

In addition to an all-female communications team, the administration now touts the first Black Defense secretary, first female director of national intelligence and first woman Treasury secretary

Biden's vice president, Kamala Harris, is the first female, Black American and person of South Asian descent to be elected Vice President in the history of the United States.