Leaders must step up to fight hate
Two contagions are ravaging the United States today. Our leaders must combat both the coronavirus and hate in a way that unites us all behind our common enemy and inspires us to love. Global pandemics and hate have a history of rising and raging together, often both inflamed by the reckless rhetoric peddled by weak leaders who seek gain in dividing us. Think about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the hatred toward gay men. Think even as far back as the 14th century, when the black death roused existing antisemitism and stoked violence against Jews.
As we write this piece, we recall similar types of hate in our communities in the United States. One of us grew up as a Haitian American and saw as Haitian refugees were incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay in the 1980s with the guise of xenophobic claims that they were bringing HIV to the United States. The other of us is the son of Chinese immigrants, a minority group that had been subject to state discrimination and federal laws in the 19th century that barred their immigration solely on the basis of race.
Hate rears its head when irresponsible leaders exploit public uncertainty and fear in order to deflect blame and scapegoat minority groups. Today, this hate has been led and encouraged by President Trump, an insecure leader whose furious and divisive rhetoric foments all the discrimination targeting communities of color, particularly Asian Americans. Unable to effectively attack the coronavirus, he will instead attack our own people. Hate can spread like the disease it accompanies if left unchecked.
We see that hate in our own communities in the District of Columbia and Connecticut. We have seen racial slurs against Asian Americans written in chalk on our sidewalks. We have seen an Asian American woman sprayed with disinfectant in line at the grocery store and denied service. We have seen several Asian American restaurant owners threatened with violence and irrationally blamed for the spread of the disease in our nation.
Responsible leaders and elected officials need to take action to stop this from happening. Amid this pandemic, Asian Americans are experiencing discrimination, harassment, and assault with alarming rates, bolstered by fear mongering about the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus. Within one month of launching its complaint website, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council had received almost 1,500 reports of harassment, shunning, and assault against Asian Americans. White supremacists foment xenophobia online, urging their followers to weaponize the coronavirus and spread it across Asian American, Jewish, and other minority communities.
Just as scientists are racing to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, our communities, policymakers, and law enforcement officials must sprint to confront hate. Absent this public intervention, hate will pave the way for future xenophobic and racist policies and practices that simply deepen disparities and threaten the safety of families across the country. That is why, in the absence of responsible leaders, state attorneys general have been taking decisive actions to protect our residents from hate.
In the District of Columbia, we enacted emergency legislation to enhance our authority to obtain maximum penalties for discrimination and relief for victims. We are having critical community conversations on discrimination and racism with residents. We are advancing legislation to address crimes that are motivated by bias. In Connecticut, we are convening community conversations and advanced legislation that formally recognizes the role of the attorney general in fighting hate and defending civil rights.
With other leaders in this country, we pledge to use the full power of our offices to prevent and combat hate. As the great Reverend Martin Luther King once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Karl Racine is the first elected attorney general of the District of Columbia, president elect of the National Association of Attorneys General, and chair emeritus with the Democratic Attorney Generals Association. William Tong is the first Asian American to serve as the attorney general of Connecticut.