Reports of hate crimes and bias incidents have spiked 366% in Oregon this year, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since January, the number of cases has grown, according to data from the Oregon Department of Justice, which began more comprehensively tracking incidents this year.
The cases are just one metric for measuring hate crimes. They represent self-reported incidents and not necessarily crimes that have been charged or prosecuted.
In March, nearly 18% of the reports came from the state’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community. In April, that number climbed to nearly 20% as fear over the coronavirus spread.
“I’m very distressed by what we’re hearing,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told OPB. “We are not going to stand for these incidents directed at Asian American folks, including targeting people from other protected classes.”
President Trump has repeatedly used racist rhetoric when referring to COVID-19. During White House briefings and online, he’s referred to the virus as “the Chinese virus.” At the same time, federal law enforcement officials have put out statements condemning hate crimes and threatened to hold offenders accountable.
“During these challenging times, Oregonians must come together to stop the spread of both COVID-19 and racial bias,” the state’s U.S. attorney, Billy Williams, said in a statement. “It is categorically false that certain groups of people are more susceptible to carrying the virus based on their real or perceived race or ethnicity. Spreading these untruths puts communities at risk of real physical harm and must stop.”
In a follow-up interview, Williams declined to say whether any incidents were under federal investigation or any charges were imminent.
At the state level, incidents reported to the Oregon Department of Justice ranged from refusal of services because of a person’s race, to businesses posting signs blaming closings on “the Chinese virus,” to hotel employees denying a person service unless they could prove they’d tested negative for COVID-19.
“We’ve always been talking about a larger group of incidents,” Rosenblum said. “Some of which are crimes and some of which are maybe equally harmful in terms of the effect, but they probably couldn’t be proved as a crime, primarily because of the First Amendment or because it doesn’t involve conduct that rises to that level.”
Portland United Against Hate released a report Monday, which in part discussed a resurgence of bias incidents directed at the city’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities since COVID-19.
Since early February, the organization has documented 10 reports directed at AAPI individuals across the city. From Feb. 2-April 22, those reports represented 42% of all incidents the group captured.
“Seven out of ten incidents occurred in Southeast Portland to women and genderqueer people, and involved negative and insulting comments or culturally insensitive language. None reported injury,” the report states. “One reported property damage.”
Duncan Hwang, associate director of the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon, said the rise in hate crimes has shifted his organization’s work. He said his co-workers have reported a number of incidents in the last several days. There was a man at the grocery store in Portland wearing combat fatigues who came up to an APANO staffer and said “I hope you die,” Hwang said. Another reported a woman blaming Asians for bringing COVID-19 to the United States.
“We see really this flip from the model minority myth around Asian Americans where Asians are doing great; education, economic attainment, all that, and then really switching back to this Yellow Peril narrative,” Hwang said. “It happened really quickly.”
Hwang said his organization is working to combat racism, while also trying to get critical public health information translated into multiple languages and raising money for grants to support local businesses.
“We feel like black and brown communities experience these incidents on the daily,” Hwang said. “Only now is it more pronounced in the Asian American community. I’m trying to figure out, is it something we want to keep talking about when racism is already so prevalent amongst other communities as well but not it just happens to really impact us.”
Many in Oregon have blamed the national rhetoric, starting with the president, for the increase.
“Xenophobia is on the rise nationally,” said Zakir Khan, board chair for the Council on American Islamic Relations of Oregon, who also sits on the attorney general’s Hate Crimes Task Force. “White people are finding themselves in a state of anxiety and there’s a lot of people who can’t work right now. I think that anxiety is rising to the surface and people are projecting that anxiety on marginalized communities much more substantively than they were before.”
Not only are members of the state’s AAPI community being targeted more frequently, but so are those perceived as being AAPI, Khan said.
The other reason for the rise, he said, is that starting this year the state finally has a centralized, robust collection for data at the Oregon DOJ.
“We’ve finally put a better system into place that really gets us the data that we need to see,” Khan said.
The DOJ has a non-emergency hotline to report incidents that’s answered during business hours Monday through Friday. The number is 1-844-924-2427. People can also file reports online.