Learning From Biden on How to Counter Xenophobia and Hate Crimes

President Joe Biden in Pittsburgh
Credit: The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American President Joe Biden last week announced some steps that are meant to protect Asian-Americans from violent attacks in the United States. He has set up a Justice Department initiative to address a rising number of hate crimes since the pandemic started playing havoc. This announcement was widely expected from the Biden administration following tragic shootings at Atlanta-area massage parlors that took the life of eight people.

Last month, Robert Aaron Long, a white man in his early twenties, shot dead eight people, six were of Asian origin. After meeting with leaders of Atlanta’s Asian-American community, Biden lamented that “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, killed.” But what is particularly praiseworthy in Biden’s sorrow is his statement that “Because our silence is complicity, we cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.” It is a well-known fact that hate crimes cannot thrive without legitimacy from the corridors of power. And Biden is assiduously trying to undermine the very legitimacy of those filled with hate against immigrants. When Biden uttered these healing words, Kamala Harris, America’s first vice-president of Asian descent, was also with him. Her presence was a powerful symbol of Biden’s commendable efforts to counter racial hatred widely prevalent in American society. Harris has also argued that “Racism is real in America, and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America and it has always been. Sexism too.” This was probably a clear reference to former president Donald Trump’s brand of politics.

Negative attitudes, hate crimes and voice against immigrants have always been there in the US. It remained mostly under the carpet until the sudden, aggressive and disruptive appearance of Donald Trump on the American political scene. He never made any secret of his utter contempt towards the people of color and Muslims. During his four tumultuous years in the White House, the white supremacists indulged in hate crimes without inviting any condemnation or reprimand from the President.

The US is regarded as the guiding light of all democracies in the world. But during Trump’s period, it got reduced to what Paul Brooker has termed as “democratically disguised dictatorship.” We all know that authoritarian rule is linked with dictatorship, and dictators are routinely projected as repressive, cynical, brutal and unpredictable. Though there is an element of truth about these types of stereotypes, authoritarian leaders in democratic garb do not openly display such traits and their undemocratic acts are often very subtle. Any democratically elected leader who envisions his country free of criticism, free of immigrants, and free of ‘Others’ has no right to be called a democrat. Trump was one such leader who defied conventional wisdom about a democratically elected leader of the world’s most powerful democratic nation.

Trump used very offensive language to refer to the immigrants coming from black countries, and expressed a strong desire for having immigrants from white countries. His most controversial and costly measure was the order to construct a fortified wall that would run along the entire border with Mexico so that the refugees could be stopped from reaching the US. During his presidential run, he had infamously described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. The sentiment of hate against Asian immigrants became pronounced when the US was hit by the Covid-19 and Trump called it the “China virus.” This bred a strong anti-Asian bias among the white nationalists in various parts of the US, resulting in violence committed against them.

During Trump presidency, anyone who was perceived as different or disagreed with his politics, received worst insults and taunts. Trump’s policies emboldened right-wing groups and created an atmosphere of impunity for white nationalists. There were many high-profile shootings leading to tragic loss of life. A shooter targeted Indian men in Kansas in 2017, mistaking them for Muslims. A shooter killed 11 Jewish people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. A man killed 23 people, mostly Latino, in El Paso in Texas in 2019. All these shooters had internalized the right-wing propaganda which has become so widespread across the world. They felt that violence was legitimate against those who are not like ‘us.’ Trump’s toxic politics have led radicalized whites in the US to believe that whatever is necessary to defeat their imagined adversaries is acceptable. Now, the Atlanta shootings mean that white supremacists have found a new target – Americans of Asian origin.

Biden is a liberal and secular politician who is aware of the threat posed by xenophobia, racism, and white extremism. As many potentially violent individuals found their political beliefs in the necessity of violence validated by the words of Trump himself, Biden has rightly attempted to target the motivation of hate violence by his sobering statements and executive actions.

Biden believes that open borders would benefit the US. He has halted the work on the Mexico wall. This has led to significant increase in the number of refugees that would be allowed into the US. And within a few days of resuming presidency, he issued orders cancelling the ban on admitting people from some Muslim-majority countries. One should remember that this obnoxious ban was one of Trump’s signature immigration policies which almost halted legal immigration from certain countries that his administration deemed to be security threats.

Biden is planning to revamp America’s immigration laws that would provide an 8-year pathway to citizenship for almost 11 million undocumented immigrants. Without doubt, these are historic measures. American politicians – both Democrats and Republicans – need to think strategically on how to reduce anti-Asian violence in their country by while extremists groups that do not believe in basic tenets of humanity. The US leaders must now highlight the presence of Asian-American in a positive manner so that ordinary Americans also view them as their own countryman.

Some of the trends that constitute politics of xenophobia, racism and aggressive nationalism, and the forces driving it, are not entirely new or unique to American society. In other words, the US is not the only democratic country when it comes to hate crimes against people who are considered ‘other.’ Many countries including India have witnessed marginalization of people based on their religion, caste, racial and linguistic affiliations, apart from their ideological or political beliefs. There is growing perception among a section of Muslims and Christians that they are being targeted because of their religious identities. Political polarization has also been increasing in India, and if not countered in time, it might spread and infect every aspect of Indian life. Many incidents of hate crimes against various minority groups have already stoked fears of politically motivated violence. The reality, fortunately, is that, on the whole, India has been an impressively non-violent country where people of different religious faiths have lived in coexistence for centuries.

There is no doubt that American democracy is not perfect, and it has its own ideological flaws, social cleavages and political divisions. But what is undeniable is that no other country has perfected a better form of democratic government than the US. It would be foolish to treat Trump as some kind of an aberration, and it would be equally juvenile to believe that some simple acts can restore decency to a nation. But Biden should be praised for showing extraordinary courage in reversing Trump’s ill-intentioned policies.

Since being elected as the US president, Biden has set the democratic standards quite high, and it should give us the optimism that the Washington establishment is resolutely trying to push back against the politics of hatred, xenophobia and racism. One should hope that after assembly elections are over in some Indian states, government leaders will show by their words and actions that hatred of people because of their religion, ethnicity, and social identity is wrong and illegal and that violence against them is not only illegitimate but against Indian tradition and values.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.