January 27, 2021

The Biden administration’s attempt to curb xenophobia directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders follows a spike in hate crimes and incidents of assault, bullying, and shunning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

President Joe Biden signed a memorandum on Tuesday acknowledging those harms and said his administration will condemn and denounce such discrimination. The action has immediate implications for employers and their workers, who have reported coronavirus-related harassment and discrimination directed at Asians and Pacific Islanders, according to attorneys and academics.

His move stands in contrast to former President Donald Trump and Republican leaders referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” throughout the pandemic, referring to its origin in Wuhan, China. Racial slurs such as the “Kung Flu” erupted on Twitter.

Biden’s memorandum directs the Department of Health and Human Services to consider issuing guidance describing best practices to enhance cultural awareness, and for the Justice Department to work with Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to prevent hate crimes and harassment.

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission signaled last year that workplace bias against Asian people could be heightened, similar to what happened to Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. The bipartisan civil rights agency, which enforces anti-discrimination laws among private employers, spoke out against offensive rhetoric targeting Asians.

In his first week in office, Biden has rolled back several measures and policies from the Trump administration, including an order that banned diversity initiatives at companies that allegedly promoted anti-White animus. Focusing on these policy changes could telegraph where the federal government could ramp up anti-discrimination enforcement.

Bias Heightens

The EEOC didn’t immediately provide updated statistics on the number of charges the agency has received during the pandemic alleging discrimination or harassment against Asian American and Pacific Islander workers.

However, following 9/11, the agency saw a 250% increase in the number of religious discrimination charges involving Muslims. Worker must file discrimination charges with the agency before suing an employer.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division also combats discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in a number of sectors, including state and local government employment.

Responding to a request for comment on the first of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic, the department pointed to its website, which contains data through 2019. More than 57% of single-bias incidents cataloged that year were motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry bias.

Recent reports and academic studies have attempted to capture the breadth of the discrimination that Asian communities have faced during the pandemic.

The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop AAPI Hate tracked 2,800 reports of bias since March using an online reporting system that found these groups were spat on while out walking, told to leave establishments, and assaulted.

The council also tracked reports of discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations, finding examples of name-calling, targeted firings, and other harassment. Asian Americans have also been hit harder by job losses during the pandemic, as compared to other groups of workers, with almost half of jobless Asians out of work for at least 27 weeks.

Asian Americans felt the effects of the pandemic beyond medical and financial concerns, according to a July report from the Pew Research Center. Among all U.S. adults, 39% said it is more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

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Biden’s call to action for the Justice Department “helps to frame the problem in a way that puts employment front and center, said Kalpana Kotagal, a partner with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, who represents workers in discrimination litigation.

“Language matters, and language signals intention,” she said. “This very loaded and candidly racist language from the Trump administration has consequences.”

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