Senate passes COVID-19 hate crime legislation by overwhelming majority

Graphic against AAPI hate.

The Senate passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act with a near-unanimous vote of 94-1, a step to address hate crimes, specifically those against Asian-Americans, in the wake of the pandemic.

Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii (D), the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, introduced the legislation in March. 

The act introduces several changes to the handling and reporting of hate crimes. Review of hate crime reports will be processed quicker in the Justice Department, with oversight conducted by an appointed official within the department. The Justice Department will increase information and awareness on hate crime reporting, working with local law enforcement and organizations to achieve this goal. This includes the creation of a hate crime reporting website that can be accessed in various languages.  

The Department of Health and Human Services and the attorney general would also enact guidelines on avoiding racist language when addressing the pandemic. 

Hirono says that racist language during the pandemic, especially phrases used by former President Donald Trump, has caused “a predictable and foreseeable consequence” against Asian-Americans, who have experienced a rise in hate crimes during the pandemic. 

Hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. have increased by almost 150 percent, according to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The study showed a “surge” of hate crimes in large cities. In New York, the percentage of hate crimes against Asians rose by 833 percent, from three anti-Asian hate crimes in 2019 to 28 in 2020. In Los Angeles, the number rose from seven hate crimes to 15. Anti-Asian hate crimes in Boston rose from six to 14, the third-largest increase of anti-Asian attacks compared to other major cities like Seattle and San Francisco. 

The study does not include attacks that occurred in 2021. Attacks against Asian-Americans this year ranged from assaults to mass shootings. In New York, a 61-year-old Asian man was left in critical condition after being pushed and kicked repeatedly in the head by an unidentified man. Earlier this year in Atlanta, a mass shooting targeting three spas caused the deaths of eight people, including six Asian women. 

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act also includes an amendment called the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act. The amendment seeks to improve the reporting of hate crimes to the FBI by upholding the latest standards for crime reporting. It would also give grants to states that create hotlines for reporting hate crimes, along with directing victims to the proper support and law enforcement services. 

The act was named after Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer; Jabara was killed in 2016 in an anti-Arab and Islamophobic hate crime and Heyer was killed exactly one year later counter-protesting the Unite-the-Right white supremacist rally in Virginia. 

The bill underwent some edits before the vote in order to gain support from Republican senators. Some Republican senators said that the original text of the legislation was too narrow in its definition of hate crimes. Senator Susan Collins of Maine (R) helped broaden the language used.

The bipartisan effort of the act helped to avoid a filibuster. Most Republican senators opposed creating a filibuster for the bill, possibly to avoid coming across as racially insensitive.

However, six Republican senators voted against proceeding with the legislation prior to the final vote. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was among the six. He called for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on anti-Asian hate crimes. He opposed proceeding with the bill as the hearing did not come to fruition. The other senators include Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Roger Marshall of Kansas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri. 

Hawley was the only opposing vote in the final Senate vote. He said in a tweet that the bill “raises big free speech questions” by turning the federal government into the “speech police.” 

The act will now go through the House of Representatives and is expected to pass as the Democrats have a majority. President Joe Biden supports the bill, calling these hate crimes wrong and “un-American” in a statement. Biden said that the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act will “bring our nation one step closer to achieving justice and equality for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities,” and the addition of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act will “further our national efforts to stand strongly against acts of hate and violence.” 

 

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