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Biden has condemned racism toward Asian Americans. It’s a start.

A new executive action confronts the racism Trump stoked toward Asian Americans during the pandemic.

A billboard in a subway in Brooklyn reads, “I am not your scapegoat” and features an illustration of an Asian woman.
Biden bans references to Covid-19 by geographical location, after racist labels led to backlash against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
STRF/STAR MAX/IPx/AP/Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

A new executive action from President Joe Biden takes direct aim at the racism former President Donald Trump stoked toward Asian Americans, marking a stark break from the discriminatory efforts of the previous administration.

As part of a broader package of memorandums advancing racial equity, Biden signed one executive action Tuesday in which he condemned xenophobic language that’s been used related to the pandemic and called on the Justice Department to collect data on hate crimes and harassment directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Since last spring, there have been more than 2,500 self-reported cases of anti-Asian hate incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a group that’s been tracking these reports. Trump himself played a role in fueling hostility toward AAPI people by repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” and even calling it the “kung flu” at times. He has previously argued that this approach was intended to capture the virus’s place of origin, even though it runs directly counter to guidance from the World Health Organization.

In its recommendations, the WHO has urged people to refrain from tying viruses to specific locations because it could stigmatize those places and people who are associated with them. Per Stop AAPI Hate, an increase in hate incident reports corresponded with the surge in the severity of the pandemic as well as Trump’s use of such language last year. Since then, AAPI have reported being physically attacked, spat on, and verbally assaulted regarding their supposed ties to the virus.

Like a few of the executive orders Biden has signed since taking office, Tuesday’s is largely a symbolic statement about who America is, with some substantive action meant to start addressing the issue. As part of the memo, Biden effectively calls on government agencies to remove the use of such language in official documents, if they find it.

“The particular xenophobia propagated by the previous administration … must be addressed,” a senior administration official said on a press call discussing the executive actions Biden is taking to advance racial equity. Other actions he’s signed include measures to combat housing discrimination and to end the federal use of private prisons.

This memo marks a notable step in denouncing Trump’s racist actions and the specific challenges that members of the AAPI community have faced during the pandemic, though experts hope it’s a signal of more to come.

When it comes to the pandemic response, for example, there’s more the administration could do to gather data broken out by ethnic group, in order to address disparities within the AAPI community. For instance, Filipino American nurses have made up a disproportionate number of the deaths that have resulted from Covid-19 — an issue that may be obscured by sweeping data that treats AAPI people as a monolith. (Other executive actions Biden has taken set up task forces aimed at tackling this issue, and advocates are keeping a close eye on what they achieve.)

“This is an important first step,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at UC Riverside and the head of AAPI Data. “When you’re talking about issues that range from unemployment to health outcomes to education barriers, having more nuanced data about our community is important because the averages mask extreme disparities.”

What the executive memo would do

The executive memo takes a clear stand in disavowing anti-Asian bias and discrimination, while also directing agencies to take steps that are intended to help improve health care access and target harassment. Specifically, it includes the following guidance:

  • The measure urges federal agencies to ensure that their documents aren’t promoting racism: It presses agencies to make sure that documents and statements “do not exhibit or contribute to racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” In effect, it asks federal bodies to remove any use of terms popularized by Trump, like “China virus,” from official communications.
  • The memo directs the Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidance about the federal government’s Covid-19 response to make sure it is accessible and not discriminatory: It calls on HHS to work with the Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force to provide guidance about how to offer public health information in more languages, and to ensure that it’s not promoting biases.
  • The memo also directs the Department of Justice to work on combating anti-Asian harassment and to collect data on it: It pushes the DOJ to collaborate with leaders in AAPI communities to combat harassment and hate crimes, and to support states’ efforts to do the same, when possible. It also directs the attorney general to set up a data collection system to track these incidents and provide public reports, something the DOJ had yet to do up to this point. This policy is similar to an initiative that the DOJ established after 9/11 in order to track harassment and hate crimes against Muslim Americans, Sikhs, and people of Arab and South Asian descent.

Advocates want to see more — including data disaggregation

Advocates see the administration’s memo as important to addressing inequities that AAPI people have faced, but they’d also like to see additional commitments — including more data related to the pandemic that’s broken out by ethnic group. Implementing this practice, which is known as data disaggregation, could help highlight the unique challenges that various groups in the community are navigating: Broad data about AAPI people often doesn’t capture specific issues that different ethnic groups are dealing with. (Biden has backed more coordinated efforts on this subject as part of his executive actions — but it’s not yet clear how the administration’s task forces will approach the topic.)

“What I don’t see here is ensuring that we have a full picture of the Asian American community — specifically recognizing that the Pacific Islander community has different challenges that they’ve faced,” says John Yang, the executive director of the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice. During the pandemic, Pacific Islanders in particular have seen higher Covid-19 fatality rates compared to other groups within AAPI communities, and better data would help lawmakers target testing, vaccines, and other health care support.

As Rachel Ramirez reported for Vox, you can see the importance of disaggregating the data in a state like Oregon, which has collected data specifically focusing on Pacific Islanders. “The CDC, like other government agencies, tend to aggregate Pacific Islander under the Asian demographic, which harmfully hides the high infection and death rates within the community,” she writes. The pattern that was found in Oregon prompted nonprofit groups to direct more Covid-19 resources to the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community in the state, though the government’s response was lackluster, Ramirez notes.

Many AAPI advocates emphasized that more information is needed at the federal level to examine the pandemic’s effects. “We ... want to see his administration take further steps to address the systemic racism that results in disproportionate rates of illness and death among Pacific Islanders and South Asians and pushes health care out of reach for immigrants,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said.

Stop AAPI Hate, too, has issued a list of policy priorities it would like the administration to consider, including an effort directing the attorney general to initiate civil actions for anti-Asian incidents, a push that would shift the onus of bringing these legal challenges from victims to the federal government.

The Biden administration said this week that the executive actions taken so far are intended to establish a foundation it aims to keep building on. “This is not the end of our work on racial equity on day six,” an administration official said during the press call.