Activists said that President Joe Biden ignored the actual concerns of Asian Americans when he signed a "pandering" executive order against anti-Asian coronavirus rhetoric that failed to mention affirmative action policies that discriminate against Asians.
Biden signed an order to combat "racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders" on Tuesday. The order—which requires federal agencies to fight anti-Asian racism and promote "sensitivity" toward the Asian community in their pandemic response—was met with skepticism by some activists. Kenny Xu, an activist and author of an upcoming book, An Inconvenient Minority, called the order mere lip service aimed at progressives.
"I can see this whole issue of COVID racism being used as a way to satiate Asian-American victimhood mentality," Xu said. "At the same time, the order is not addressing some real policy-based issues that Asian Americans face on a practical and actionable level."
Xu and other activists worry that despite its pro-Asian-American rhetoric, the Biden administration will undo some of the Trump White House's initiatives to combat anti-Asian racism. Chief among their concerns is the issue of affirmative action, which critics say rejects qualified Asian candidates to make room for other minority groups at elite institutions. Biden is a lifelong supporter of affirmative action, while Vice President Kamala Harris backed a California referendum to overturn a ban on affirmative action in the University of California system last year.
Biden's executive order is an implicit rejection of the Trump administration's use of "Wuhan virus" and "China virus" when referring to the coronavirus. Trump, however, did not coin the term. Chinese authorities called the virus the "Wuhan virus" in the initial stages of the pandemic response but fiercely denounced the nickname after the virus spread overseas. Asian-American activists say that the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic is the least of their concerns.
"To be quite frank, I think this is the least of our worries," said Isaac Yi, a member of the Young Asian Pacific American Leaders group. "I think the executive order was just a form of pandering to the Asian-American community."
The Trump administration's Justice Department had sided with Asian Americans in a high profile lawsuit against Harvard University to overturn the university's affirmative action policy, which critics say discriminates against Asian Americans. The Biden White House is likely to reverse its stance and support affirmative action, according to education and legal experts.
Xu said that he is "not optimistic" about the Biden administration despite the executive order, given its likely lack of support for anti-affirmative action cases.
"Action speaks louder than words," Xu said. "Obviously minorities do face racism in the United States, for sure. But a lot of Asian Americans are looking at the order and saying, ‘Are you actually going to have policies that will allow Asian Americans to be treated equally in employment and affirmative action?'"
The Biden administration may face an unexpected uphill climb in solidifying support from ethnic minority groups that traditionally lean Democratic, but are increasingly embracing the GOP. A 2020 poll found that the Republican Party has made in-roads with Vietnamese Americans, Indian Americans, and other Asian communities. Two of the three Korean-American women who entered Congress for the first time in the last election are Republicans.
Biden's anti-Asian executive order was one of several that the president signed in his first week in office that caters to minority groups in the United States. The president also signed executive orders that strengthened tribal sovereignty, repealed the military's transgender ban, and bolstered DACA, an Obama-era program that defers deportation for some illegal immigrants.