WASHINGTON — President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled on Friday to Atlanta to express grief for the victims of a mass shooting that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent, describing the tragedy as part of an increase in racially motivated violence and pledging to take action against hate and discrimination.
The gruesome shootings on Tuesday in Atlanta thrust Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris into the middle of a national struggle to confront the harassment and violence against Asian-Americans from people angry about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than a half-million people.
“They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed,” Mr. Biden lamented after a meeting with leaders of Atlanta’s Asian-American community that he described as heart-wrenching to be part of.
“It’s been a year of living in fear for their lives,” the president said.
Mr. Biden expressed empathy for the victims’ families, who he said were left with “broken hearts and unanswered questions.” And he said Americans should take responsibility for failing to express enough outrage about the targeting of people of Asian descent during the pandemic that has gripped the country.
“Because our silence is complicity,” he said. “We cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.”
Mr. Biden had by his side the nation’s first vice president of Asian descent, who was — just through her presence — a powerful symbol of efforts to reject racial animosity and bias.
“Racism is real in America, and it has alway been,” Ms. Harris said, speaking before Mr. Biden. “Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too.”
Ms. Harris, whose mother was born in India, confronted the doubts expressed by some, including the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, about whether the killings in Atlanta were racially motivated. Investigators in Cherokee County, Ga., where some of the victims were targeted at a spa, have said that the gunman told them that he had a “sexual addiction” and had carried out the attacks as a way to eliminate temptation.
The vice president offered little doubt about what she believed and whom she blamed for stoking the violence, alluding to — without directly naming — former President Donald J. Trump, who repeatedly blamed the pandemic on what he called the “China virus.”
“For the last year, we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian-Americans,” she said. “People with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate.”
The Biden administration, she said, would not “stand by” in the face of racial violence.
“Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear,” she said. “Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian-Americans. The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian-Americans has risen dramatically over the last year.”
Anti-Asian attacks have soared during the past year, part of a pattern that Mr. Biden called “wrong” and “un-American” last week during a speech at the White House. On Friday, he, too, appeared to blame Mr. Trump and his supporters without naming them directly, saying, “We’ve always known words have consequences.”
The moment is a delicate one for Mr. Biden — a new president commanding the country’s most important bully pulpit in the middle of grieving and racial reckoning.
Among those who met privately with Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris before the speeches was Marvin Lim, a Georgia state lawmaker who said that he felt “powerful and privileged” to represent the Asian-American community at such a raw time, and that he felt gratified that the new administration had taken the time to come and listen.
He said he was touched by Ms. Harris, who he said ended their session by asking those present to tell their community members that “they are not alone.”
After his public remarks about the shootings and Asian-American violence, Mr. Biden made an abrupt shift in topic, highlighting the administration’s progress in getting people vaccinated and promoting the passage of the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan.”
For all that he promised to act to curb racially motivated violence, Mr. Biden has few quick or easy ways to do so.
The debate over how best to curb mass shootings and hate crimes involves, among other issues, gun rights, mental health treatments, red-flag laws and background checks, all of which tend to be met in Congress with gridlock.
During his first week in office, Mr. Biden signed an executive order directing his government to work toward stopping “anti-Asian bias, xenophobia and harassment.” On Friday, he urged Congress to pass the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which he said would “expedite the federal government’s response to the rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic.”
A Rise in Attacks Against Asian-Americans
- Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
- A torrent of hate and violence against Asian-Americans around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
- In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
- In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.
The legislation, which was sponsored by two Asian-American lawmakers — Senator Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Representative Grace Meng of New York, both Democrats — would make it easier for people to report hate crimes linked to the pandemic by helping to establish online threat-reporting systems. It would also direct administration officials to review existing federal, state and local hate crime laws.
Still, the trip to Georgia was the president’s first opportunity to serve in the grim role of “consoler in chief” for yet another grieving community suffering through the horrific aftermath of a mass shooting.
For Mr. Biden, soothing the nation is a responsibility that plays to his strengths: a life forged by personal loss of the kind that most people never endure created a political career in which he has repeatedly been called upon to eulogize the fallen, often with the whispery, cracking voice that betrays his own emotions.
On Friday, he closed his remarks with assurances aimed at the relatives of those killed in the Atlanta attacks.
“I know they feel like there’s a black hole in their chest they’re being sucked into, and things will never get better,” he said. “But our prayers are with you. And I assure you, the one you lost will always be with you, always be with you.”
The president’s ability to project empathy toward those who are suffering stands in contrast to Mr. Trump, who struggled to convey a sense of somber support at such moments. (His grinning, thumbs-up photograph at a hospital after a mass shooting in El Paso generated a backlash of angry commentary about his visit.) During a campaign played out against a backdrop of grief because of the pandemic, Mr. Biden often accused his opponent of having no real empathy for those who were suffering.
Mr. Biden also accused his predecessor of embracing and fomenting the very racial strife that has roiled the country and inspired acts of violence like the one that erupted across Atlanta on Tuesday. It was Mr. Trump’s reaction to racist violence in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. — and especially his comment about “good people” among the white supremacist rioters — that motivated him to run for president, Mr. Biden has often said.
Moments of mourning after mass shootings can be a special challenge for any president. They require the ability to comfort those who are grieving the loss of their loved ones while at the same time offering optimism and hope to a nation that is often badly shaken by the horror of what has just happened.
In 2012, after 20 young children were killed by a gunman in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama concluded remarks at a memorial service by slowly reading their names, one by one, while some in the audience wept.
Three years later, after finishing his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down along with eight others during a Bible study in a Charleston, S.C., church, Mr. Obama sang some of “Amazing Grace,” bringing the church to its feet and touching the heart of the country.
Much like that moment, Mr. Biden now faces not only a gruesome killing spree, but an episode wrapped in racial tensions. And like during Mr. Obama’s tenure, the words of empathy will be followed by tough questions about what the federal government can or should do to prevent the tragic scene from being repeated again.
Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Atlanta.
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