Community Impact

Hidden histories of Asians and Pacific Islanders unearthed

May 09, 2022

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Just west of the Portland waterfront where Chinese migrants worked and a bustling Portland Chinatown stood, some of their remains lay buried, unmarked, in a vacant lot at the corner of Lone Fir Cemetery.

My visit to Block 14 was one way for me to honor Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as May begins. It revealed hidden history and was a reminder of the enormous impact Asians had in developing our region’s infrastructure and economy and of the heroic role Asian Pacific Islander Americans and recent immigrants play in local health care today. I am also reminded of the stubborn stereotypes, xenophobia and invisibility that persist across time and space.

Asian immigrants built our region

Despite the persistent myth that Asians and Pacific Islanders are perpetual foreigners, they are integral members of our society and have played a vital role in building our community and providing essential services for all.

The Chinese, for example, settled, lived, and worked in Oregon as early as 1850, nine years before statehood. They are among the earliest generations of non-indigenous people to settle here, filling critical labor roles in railroad construction, laundries, restaurants, domestic service, gold mining, logging and fish canning. They also experienced labor exploitation, racial violence, legal discrimination in housing and employment, and fraught immigration and naturalization policies.

Fast rising population today

Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are culturally, linguistically, socioeconomically and religiously diverse and make up the fastest growing population in the United States. In the 2020 census, 6.1% of the population, or more than 20 million people, identified as Asian or Pacific Islander. This is a 35% increase from 2010. Another 4.1 million individuals identified as multiracial Asians, a 55% jump from 2010.

Our region has even more Asian and Pacific Islanders. They now comprise 11.7% of Washington County, 8.1% of Multnomah County and 5% of Clark County. 

Outsized role and discrimination during health care crisis

The U.S. health care system faces increasing labor shortages and pressures from the coronavirus outbreak. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have been on the frontline of the critical response to the pandemic, keeping hospitals running. But sadly, the places they work and sacrifice are also places where many experience racial stereotyping and hate speech from peers, patients, and family members that associate East Asians with the spread of COVID-19 and South Asians and Middle Easterners with terrorism. 

More than 1.4 million health care workers, or 8.5 percent, are Asian and Pacific Islanders. At Legacy, they represent close to 9 percent of the workforce. In Oregon, they comprise 12% of primary care providers, 13% of oral health providers, and 3.3% of behavioral health providers.

At Legacy, they are food and nutrition specialists, nurses, pharmacists, physicians, housekeepers, laboratory technicians, researchers, security guards, executive strategists, human resource professionals, data scientists, and more. Given their share of the overall U.S. population, this means that Asian and Pacific Islanders are statistically overrepresented in our industry and at Legacy; the hyper invisibility and visibility of their impact is striking. 

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