U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson recently met with Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Thompson’s home state of Mississippi, where they discussed his efforts in passing hate crimes legislation and his role as chairman of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
They discussed the dramatic uptick in hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and Thompson’s support for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, signed into law last year. With the act in place, Thompson said, the next step is to “understand what we have to put in place to mitigate those crimes from continuing to occur,” which requires bringing “those communities that feel the brunt of the attacks into the conversation.”
He also discussed his hopes for the House Select Committee to produce “a statement of what actually occurred” during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and to discover “how resources were misused to orchestrate a lie” about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Margaret Huang: Hi there. I'm Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Today, I am delighted to be sitting down with Congressman Bennie Thompson. He is the longest-serving African American elected official here in Mississippi. And he's also the lone Democrat of the Mississippi congressional delegation.
We're sitting here today in Cultivation Food Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, which is Congressman Thompson's home state. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Bennie Thompson: Thank you for having me.
Margaret Huang: Congressman Thompson, we've seen a really dramatic uptick in the number of hate crimes being directed against the Asian American community. Like many of my colleagues and peers and family members, I was horrified by the shootings in Atlanta last year. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. And of course, I know you were very supportive of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Bill that passed last year.
Perhaps one of the silver linings of seeing this rise in the number of hate crimes against the Asian American community – my community – is that I've learned a lot about the history of collaboration and solidarity between Asian Americans, African Americans in this country that goes back decades. It's something I didn't fully know before these stories started coming out, and before we started talking together about how we have to come together to fight these crimes.
I'd love to hear your reflections on where we are in this country, combating hate crimes and documenting what's happening in hate crimes across the country.
Bennie Thompson: Well, unfortunately this country, up until very recently, did not like to label a crime as a hate crime. They said, "Oh, a crime is a crime."
No, there are some crimes that are more egregious than others. So now we have elevated certain crimes in this country to a standing where the penalty is greater. But what we have to do with that is understand what we have to put in place to mitigate those crimes from continuing to occur.
Now, the mitigation requires conversation with those individuals who are directly impacted by the crimes. Too many times in this country, until very recently, people would say, "Oh, I know how it feels to be Black."
Not unless you Black, you don't.
Or, "Oh, I know how the Asian community feels when they are under attack."
No, you don't; not unless you Asian.
So part of that is to bring those communities that feel the brunt of the attacks into the conversation. That means you can't put a room full of non-Asians to solve an Asian problem. I've seen recently the Biden administration create inclusive opportunities for different people to be in the room. And a lot of people don't like that.
They said, "Well, I don't know." Like one of my senators said, "It's a quota." Well, if you haven't had any of those people who we have wronged in the room, it's a problem.
Margaret Huang: Yeah. Congressman, it feels like the attacks on voting rights are really part of this larger threat that you are looking at as part of the Jan. 6th Select Committee. There seems to be an incredible push toward a much more authoritarian regime. And that's really what I think the committee is trying to understand.
You talked about the fact that there are lessons we can learn about how the government functions and responds, et cetera. But what do you hope the Jan. 6th Select Committee is going to produce in the end? What can we anticipate?
Bennie Thompson: Well, I think what you can anticipate is a statement of what actually occurred. You will look and see how federal resources were misused to orchestrate a lie. You'll see how federal organizations made missteps in identifying what was going on on Jan. 6th.
But as important, you'll see how wealthy Americans invested in promoting this lie through various organizations. Well, again, there's been no evidence that our committee has been able to uncover of any fraud, of any election irregularities.
We've gone from Arizona, to Georgia, to Pennsylvania, to Michigan, to Minnesota, to Wisconsin. We've talked to Democrats, Republicans. And they all say, "Look, none of what occurred would've altered the outcome of the election."
In a majority of the states, the election officials were Republican. And so all those states where you have those Republican officials who wouldn't go along with the lie, they now have opponents. I mean, when did telling the truth become a penalty in this country?
And so our hope is to recommend, first of all, that in the greatest democracy in the world, in elections there are winners and losers. But it shouldn't become an insurrection after the election, like we saw on Jan. 6th. So we're going to put in place recommendations so that that never happened again.
Photo at top: U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson is speaking to SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang (Credit: SPLC).