June, 1982. Days away from his wedding, Vincent Chin is out celebrating with his friends in Detroit, Michigan. The nation is in the midst of an economic contracture, and it’s hitting Detroit particularly hard, creating a tense environment made even more tense by swirling rumours and commentary about the auto manufacturing industry.
An altercation starts inside inside a bar, spilling over to the outside when the participants are thrown out. ‘It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work,’ Ronald Ebens says, referencing the commonly-repeated myth that manufacturing jobs are being outsourced to Japan, and apparently unable to tell the difference between a Chinese man and a Japanese one[1. The devastating power of ‘they all look the same.’]. Ebens’ stepson Michael Nitz is with him, equally puffed up with righteous rage.
At first, it looked like the encounter might leave Chin shaken, but okay; yet another racist incident to chalk up in what would be a long life of racist incidents, because such is existence for nonwhite people and people of colour in the US. That changed when Eben and Nitz searched the neighbourhood, enlisting bystanders for help, until they found Chin, whereupon they beat him so severely with a baseball bat that he fell into a coma. He lingered that way for four days until he died.
‘It’s not fair‘ were the last words out of Chin’s mouth.
The Chinese community was outraged. Despite the fact that witnesses reported racial slurs and the crime clearly involved elements of racialized hatred (uh, the slurs, for one, but also attacking Chin and mouthing reactionary racist rhetoric about taking jobs) and premeditation (systematically searching for a victim doesn’t speak of an altercation gone wrong, but of sustained rage), the two were able to plea down to manslaughter. They served no jail time, and were fined $3,000 for Chin’s death. Some cynics in the Chinese community suggested that must be the going price of a licence to kill.
Across the US as a whole, the Asian-American community was already organising, fighting civil rights battles, getting involved, uniting across racial lines to address common issues. The Vincent Chin case became a crystallising moment for the movement, uniting people from a variety of backgrounds in the fight for justice for both Chin and his family. Furious at the fact that his murderers effectively got off, furious at the low value placed on a Chinese man’s life in the supposedly enlightened age of 1982, furious at civil rights violations like this, people took to the streets, and two Chinese women, Helen Zia and Liza Cheuk May Chan, rallied for federal charges, refusing to rest after the state’s verdict in the case.
In 1984, a federal case finally arrived, charging the men with violating Chin’s civil rights. Ebens was convicted on one charge, while Nitz was not. Two years later, Ebens won an appeal vacating his prior conviction, returning right back to square one. Meanwhile, in civil court, the Chin estate won damages from Nitz and Eben for the murder, but those damages have yet to be paid. Thanks to interest, the bill is in excess of four million dollars now.
Thirty one years after the loss of a son and future husband, Chin’s survivors are still waiting for justice.
And the US has yet to address its deep-seated racial problems, and the specific kind of racial hatred reserved for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. The specific and peculiar blend of disdain that mingles ‘positive’ stereotypes (‘all Asians are high achieving’) with the usual nasty xenophobia (‘they aren’t like us’ ‘they’re taking our jobs’) lays the groundwork for situations just like this, and makes living in this country dangerous for people who aren’t white, who don’t pass, who don’t seem ‘nonthreatening’ to people occupying positions of social and political privilege. Anti Asian-American hate crimes still occur, and they are every bit as vile and hideous as the crime that took Vincent Chin.
Writing on the 30th anniversary of Chin’s death last year, Frank H. Wu noted that:
Asian-Americans who have achieved success owe a debt to the agitators who followed the Chin case, often defying their own cultural backgrounds as well as the stereotype of passivity and quiescence. Everyone who cares about the promise of our increasingly diverse nation ought to see in this case the possibility of social change arising from tragic violence.
And the white community would do well to remember Chin’s legacy as well, because cases like this should never happen again. I hope with all my heart that there isn’t another Vincent Chin out there, but I know that hoping does little in the face of reality; hope does not translate into action unless you make it so, and while hate crime statistics in the US are getting better, crimes like these still persist, and they need to be fought.
They need to be fought in schools, where comprehensive education should cover race instead of shying away from it, and where racism should be directly confronted and addressed. They need to be fought in business environments, where racism shouldn’t be tolerated from management, coworkers, or anyone else. They need to be fought in homes, where children may learn hate from an early age and not have a chance to know any other kind of life.
They need to be fought by protecting workers, by lobbying for the safety of immigrants, by changing the makeup of our governing bodies. Thirty years after Vincent Chin’s brutal death, things have come a long way in the United States for many Asian-Americans. But it’s not time to declare victory yet, by any means.
Racism isn’t dead. And not talking about it doesn’t change that.