US President Joe Biden on Friday denounced the scourge of violence against Asian-Americans, telling a community plunged into grief after this week’s Atlanta murders that the nation must not be complicit in the face of racism and xenophobia.

Biden called on all Americans to stand up to bigotry when they see it, adding: “Silence is complicity, we cannot be complicit.” “We have to speak out, we have to act,” Biden said in a speech at Emory University urging Americans to fight what he called a “resurgence of xenophobia.”

Addressing the nation after a roughly 80-minute meeting with Asian American state legislators and other leaders, Biden said it was “heart-wrenching” to listen to their stories of the fear among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders amid what he called a “skyrocketing spike” of harassment and violence against them.

“We have to change our hearts,” he said. “Hate can have no safe harbor in America.”

Biden on Asian Americans during Covid pandemic

“They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed; they’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed,” Biden said of Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

The president also called the shootings an example of a “public health crisis of gun violence in this country,” as his administration has come under scrutiny from some in his own party for not moving as swiftly as promised on reforming the nation’s gun laws.

Minutes earlier the president and Vice President Kamala Harris met leaders of Georgia’s Asian-American community in the wake of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, being shot dead at massage parlors in the Atlanta area.

Harris, the first person of South Asian descent to hold national office, said that while the motive of the shooter remains under investigation, these facts are clear: Six of the eight killed were of Asian descent and seven of them were women.

“Racism is real in America. And it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too,” she said. “The president and I will not be silent. We will not stand by. We will always speak out against violence, hate crimes and discrimination, wherever and whenever it occurs.”

She added that everyone has “the right to be recognized as an American. Not as the other, not as them. But as us.”

Before leaving Washington, Biden declared his support for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill that would strengthen the government’s reporting and response to hate crimes and provide resources to Asian American communities.

Georgia state Rep. Marvin Lim, who was among a group of Asian American leaders who met with Biden and Harris in Atlanta, said the group “didn’t really talk about hate crime sentencing and all of these things there’s been a lot of discussion around.

“We really talked about the grief people are feeling, the fear people are feeling, the possible responses to that,” Lim said. “The discussion felt very affirming.”

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Chinese American Democrat who represents parts of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, was moved by the presence of Harris, saying: “Not only that she was there listening to us, but that she also understood these issues in a very intimate way, that in some ways you can’t teach, that you can’t teach that sort of lived experience. So we felt that she was going to be an incredible advocate on our behalf in the White House.”

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