U.S. Acts Decisively to Protect Asian Americans—But Drags Its Feet on Protecting Black Americans

While the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act sailed through Congress with fanfare, a human rights report on police violence was largely ignored, and the bill to curb police violence is on life support. 

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in June 2014 in New York City. (Marcela / Flickr)

In May, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. The text of the law condemns the recent upsurge in anti-Asian harassment and violence and proposes to address it by streamlining the prosecution of these attacks as “hate crimes” and funding state and local law enforcement programs that seek to prevent or punish “hate crimes.” (Expressing a carceral sensibility, the law has drawn criticism from those who say it contradicts Black Lives Matter’s focus on “defunding” the police and abolishing the prison system.) 

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act passed the House with strong bipartisan support and passed the Senate in a vote that was 94 to 1—a remarkable event in this highly partisan era.  The media announced the passage of the law approvingly as a sign of the federal government’s concern for Asian American communities and commitment to stemming anti-Asian attacks.

But there is more to the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act than meets the eye. To see this, we need to look at the act in relation to two other official documents that are not getting the public attention they deserve. 

The first document was released in March by an international team of human rights experts and is entitled “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States.” 

The second document is the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill, which aims to reduce police violence against marginalized communities and is currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate. 

If we consider these three items together—the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, the human rights report on police violence, and the Congressional bill to curb police violence—what can we learn about race and power in 21st century America?

Let’s start with the human rights report. In it, human rights experts from around the world document the systematic violation of Black Americans’ rights by the police and associated institutions in the U.S.  They conclude that police violence toward Black people is so severe and extensive that it constitutes a “crime against humanity”—a phrase used in international law to describe only the most heinous and destructive acts.  The report calls upon international bodies to investigate and demands that the U.S. government acknowledge that slavery and colonialism were indeed “crimes against humanity” and establish a congressional commission to study reparations. 

In the tradition of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, as well as earlier Black internationalists like William Patterson and Paul Robeson, the report is an effort to bring international opinion to bear on the treatment of Black Americans by the U.S. state. Despite the gravity and importance of this subject, the report has been largely ignored by the U.S. media and government.  

Relatedly, the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill was inspired by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. This was the largest mass mobilization in U.S. history: Between 15 and 26 million Americans took to the streets to demand justice for Floyd and an end to police violence, according to The New York Times.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing bill seeks to curb racial violence and racial discrimination on the part of the police by, among other things, banning certain police practices that are used disproportionately on Black people (including the chokehold and the carotid hold) and making it easier to hold violent officers accountable in court.  The bill passed the House in a close vote along party lines, and it is now stuck in the Senate, where it may well die. Police unions and Republican senators have strongly opposed the bill. 

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act sailed through Congress with fanfare, while the human rights report on police violence was ignored by the U.S. media and government, and the bill to curb police violence is on life support in the Senate. What explains this combination of developments?

To understand the full import of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, we need to grasp not only what it says explicitly, but also the unspoken message it conveys. The unspoken message is that Asian American lives matter more than Black lives, and that the U.S government cares more about Asian Americans than it does about Black people. 

The U.S. government will act decisively to protect Asian Americans but drags its feet on protecting Black Americans—even in the face of domestic and international pressure to do so, and even though racial violence against Black people is both more frequent and more murderous than racial violence against Asian Americans.   

In fact, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is part of a long historical pattern of the U.S. state favoring Asian Americans over Black people. The pattern began during the era of racial slavery, when Africans were seen as uniquely enslaveable and the Chinese were seen as ineligible for enslavement, and it continues today.  Structurally disadvantaged relative to whites, Asian Americans are also structurally advantaged relative to Black people—in terms of which neighborhoods they are allowed to move into, which schools they can attend, which jobs they can get, whether they can get bank loans, whether they are targeted by the police, whether they disproportionately imprisoned, and so on.  For almost 200 years, since the first Asian immigrants arrived in the U.S., whites have operated by the principle Better Asians than Blacks.  Sometimes a law is not just a law but also a lesson about racial positionality.  

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is the government’s way of pretending to do something for Asian Americans while doubling down on the oppression of Black people and the fortification of the prison-industrial complex. 

Both the human rights report and the bill to curb police violence challenged the U.S. government to address the singular oppression of Black people, and the U.S. government responded in time-honored fashion by doing something for Asian Americans instead.  This was a way of doing anti-racism on the cheap (without having to disrupt structural anti-Blackness), denigrating the value of Black lives (as not worth protecting), and reinforcing the mass incarceration system (remember that the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act favors carceral solutions).  

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is the government’s way of pretending to do something for Asian Americans while doubling down on the oppression of Black people and the fortification of the prison-industrial complex.  There is no evidence that labelling attacks “hate crimes” and giving perpetrators longer sentences reduces the incidence of anti-Asian violence. 

All this does is give the appearance of taking action.  The safety and well-being of Asian Americans depend not upon more police and more prisons but on moving toward a just society where race no longer organizes the distribution of blessings and harms.  This is the dream that the Black freedom struggle has always pursued, and it should be the dream we all embrace.

Tune in on August 24 for a related episode of the Ms. podcast “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin“: Being Asian in America.

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Claire Jean Kim is professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her third book, Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World, will be published in early 2022.