Violence and harassment against Asian Americans has increased significantly over the past year nationwide — and in the Pacific Northwest.
The most prominent example was a string of vandalism against businesses in the Jade District, an outer Southeast Portland neighborhood that is home to a number of businesses that are owned by and cater to Asian-American customers.
“We don’t know the direct motivation behind the vandalism, but we do know that a lot of those businesses were Asian owned,” Allie Yee, development and communications director at APANO, a nonprofit that works with immigrant communities, told OPB’s Think Out Loud recently.
Jade District businesses suffered an earlier rash of vandalism at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And even before the pandemic reached the United States, business owners in the neighborhood reported a drop in customers and a rise in both vandalism and verbal harassment.
“There was a lot of misinformation and disinformation about the virus at that time,” Yee said. “That I think led to avoidance of Asian businesses or kind of fear or targeting of Asian community members …
“People were experiencing threats, intimidation, even physical violence.”
Yaejoon Kwon, an assistant professor of sociology and comparative race and ethnicity studies at Reed College, said the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump — such as his false claims about the Chinese government’s role in the origins of COVID-19 — exacerbated the situation. Kwon noted that heated historical moment and racist rhetoric aimed at one ethnic group, such as the rise of the Japanese car industry in the 1980s or the 9/11 attacks by Islamic terrorists, tend to lead to a rise in racism and discrimination aimed at a far broader population.
Artthew Ng, a sociology student at Portland State University, has experienced the spike in racism firsthand. He told OPB host Dave Miller about an incident last summer in which he was accosted in Vancouver, Washington, on his way to his sister’s wedding. The drive from his home in North Portland had taken an especially long time because of traffic, and after parking in the neighborhood near the venue, he sat in his car for a few minutes to check his phone.
“Suddenly this old white guy burst out of his house, runs out and starts knocking on my door,” Ng said. “He barges into my car and he starts screaming at me: ‘What are you doing? What are you doing? This isn’t your property.”
Ng said he and the man yelled at each other for a few minutes. Then the man walked back to his house. On the way, he looked back at Ng and made a choking motion with his hands.
“I took this as a threat, a lynching threat,” Ng said. “I was terrified, so I moved my car, and I didn’t even tell anyone about it until much, much later.”
President Joe Biden recently issued an order denouncing discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
But experts note that racism against Asian Americans is built into public life in the United States, and in the Pacific Northwest. A series of federal laws and decisions, punctuated by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, essentially barred Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt repealed that in 1943, but during that same period, almost 120,000 Japanese Americans were being held in World War II internment camps.
Oregon was founded as a whites-only state, and laws that made it difficult for people of color to own property existed well into the 20th Century.