Asian Americans across the country and in the Pacific Northwest are reeling after Tuesday’s deadly mass shooting in Atlanta.
Investigators in that case are still determining the white shooter’s motive, but we do know that six of the eight victims were Asian American women. And this attack comes amid a rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oregon Rep. Khanh Pham is the only Asian American in the state Legislature, and her district covers parts of Southeast and East Portland that have comparatively large Asian American and Pacific Islander populations.
She joined All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi Wednesday to talk about the Atlanta shootings, their impact on Oregonians and the role state leaders should play in curbing racist rhetoric and hate crimes. To listen to their full conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.
Tiffany Camhi: What were your initial reactions to the mass shooting in Atlanta? Was it a surprise to you?
Rep. Khanh Pham: I felt sick to my stomach ... So many people in the Asian American community have been warning about the rising hate crimes, the rhetoric that we knew would be leading to more violence against Asian American and other vulnerable communities. So no, I wasn’t surprised. But I was saddened. I feel scared for my community, and I’m also angry.
Camhi: There’s not much we know yet about the motivations of the alleged shooter, but investigators have been very quick to say they do not believe the attack was racially motivated. That said, almost all of the victims were Asian-Americans. How does this kind of narrative affect the lived experience of Asian Americans?
Pham: The definitions and labeling of a hate crime are important, but I really want us not to lose sight of the impact of who is being targeted and the identities of the victims. This is gun violence. It is gender-based violence. It is sexual violence, and it is race-based violence. We need to look at all those dimensions. Everybody deserves to feel safe going to work, walking down the street or simply just being Asian. And right now, so many members of our Asian community are terrified.
Camhi: Several Asian-American owned businesses in Portland’s Jade District were vandalized earlier this year. This is an area you represent. What kind of concerns have you been hearing from your constituents? How have they been feeling about these attacks?
Pham: I’ve been hearing from my constituents and some of the business owners, the small business owners who have been impacted, that this leads to real fear. They are just simply trying to make a living. They are being targeted by this racist violence. And so I think it’s really highlighted the need for our community to advocate and to come together and demand our rights and say ‘We need to have a say in some of these policies, and we need to work together to make sure that our community is protected and safe from vandalism and violence. As just one legislator, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that I’m committed to talking with communities. I’m committed to talking with other elected officials to figure out how we prevent the vandalism and all these tragedies, whether it’s targeted Asian business or in this case, targeting Asian lives.
Camhi: You’re the only Asian American lawmaker in Oregon. What should the state do to address the hate and violence directed at Asian American Oregonians? Do your colleagues in the Oregon Legislature understand the need to address this issue?
Pham: I think we’re beginning to. That’s why representation is so important. I am the first AAPI legislator in almost 20 years to be in the Legislature, and and I think it’s important to have people who are directly impacted being able to push these issues and say. ‘Our voices are not being heard; this wasn’t being paid attention to.’ … I am looking forward to working with my fellow legislators to come together and figure out how we can change this culture. It’s not just how we can prevent these tragedies. It’s about a larger community conversation. This is deep-rooted culture about how Asian Americans are often seen and targeted as objects and dehumanized, which leads to these acts of violence. We need to realize that everyone is a part of changing this culture and creating a safe environment for everyone.
Camhi: What do you want your fellow Oregonians to know about the Asian American Pacific Islander community here?
Pham: The Asian American and Pacific Islander community has been a part of Oregon’s history. From the very beginning, I sit on the redistricting committee, and I recently learned that at the turn of the century, Chinese Americans made up almost 10% of Oregon’s population. We have been integral to the fabric of Oregon, but for too long we’ve been seen as outsiders. The kind of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment that has been allowed to fester and grow in these recent years is the root cause of some of these attacks. So I want people to know that we are an integral part of Oregon, we’re afraid right now, and we need your support. We’re also strong, and we’re resilient.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Khanh Pham’s first name. OPB apologies for the error.