Vincent Chin was beaten with a baseball bat 27 years ago today in a Detroit suburb, and died four days later.
At the time, I was three years out of art school, managing a paint store, and was a budding young rock critic writing for Denver’s alternative newspaper, Westword. I didn’t follow any news coverage about the attack on Vincent Chin, and I was clueless about the importance of his tragic death. I was still a “banana” — yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. Like the name of the 2008 documentary film about the impact of Chin’s murder on the Asian American community, if you had asked me then about him, I would have said, “Vincent who?”
Today, Vincent Chin is very much on my mind. I haven’t seen director Tony Lam’s “Vincent Who?” yet, but I definitely feel I’m a part of Chin’s legacy. In the decades since, I’ve become aware and much more appreciative of my ethnic roots, culture and history as a Japanese American, which I used to take for granted. I’ve also become much more aware of my place in the much larger Asian American community.
And, along with that awareness is the knowledge of the history of hate and prejudice that Asians have endured in America ever since the first immigrants’ arrival.
Lest people think I’m being overly sensitive, let me say that Asians aren’t the only ethnic group ever to face prejudice, and that America’s history is chockfull of racial injustice against native Americans, Africans (hello, slavery) and against every wave of European immigrants (the Irish were dirt when they first arrived, and Joe DiMaggio was spit on by baseball fans when he started his career, because he was Italian). But this blog is about Asian Americans. And this post is about Vincent Chin.
Chin was celebrating his impending marriage with a bachelor party at a strip club in a Detroit suburb on June 19, 1982. His wedding was set for June 27. Chin and his friends got in a fight with another group, during which a witness says she heard Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens say, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” Detroit had been hit by a wave of layoffs in part because of the rise of Japanese automakers such as Toyota and Honda during the 1970s. In Detroit during this time, it was a common publicity stunt for charities to allow people to smash Japanese cars in exchange for donations.
Chin was Chinese American. He was adopted from China, had grown up in the Detroit area, and he worked as a draftsman for an automotive supplier.
After the fight, the wedding party and the other group of men were thrown out of the strip club. Ronald Ebens, the Chrysler supervisor, and his stepson, Michael Nitz, combed the neighborhood looking for Chin and even paid a friend $20 to help in the search. They found Chin at a nearby McDonald’s and dragged him out. Nitz held him down while Ebens beat Chin with a baseball bat. Chin’s last words to a friend before slipping into a coma were, “It’s not fair.” He was brain dead, and died four days later in the hospital.
Two off-duty police officers witnessed the beating and arrested Ebens at the scene of the murder. The facts of the killing were not in dispute. The two men were convicted of manslaughter (a plea bargain dropped the charges from second-degree murder) and they were sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,000 each — what seems today like a ridiculously light sentence, but this was a hate crime before hate crimes were a criminal offense.
This is Vincent Chin’s legacy — his death was in a sad way, a gift to Asian Americans.
Although various efforts had been underway during the 1970s to establish Asian studies programs in schools and a sense of Asian American identity was starting to solidify, the verdict and sentence that followed Chin’s murder sparked such outrage that a pan-Asian community was born on the spot. Asian American Pacific Islander organizations rallied around the injustice. Journalists such as Helen Zia doggedly followed the case, and got the word out.
Zia and lawyer Mia Zuk May Chang got federal charges filed against the two men for violating Chin’s civil rights, but Nitz was acquitted and Ebens’ conviction and 25-year sentence was overturned on a technicality in 1986. A later civil suit was settled out of court, although Ebens has been in court since over the money he was ordered by the court to pay to Chin’s estate.
Zia’s reporting of the Chin case is a foundation of her landmark book, “Asian American Dreams.” A 1988 film, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” by Renee Tajima and Christine Choy, was nominated for a best documentary Academy Award.
Anyone — like me in the 1990s — who is Asian American and starts to connect with her or his history will come across Vincent Chin’s name. He is like Medgar Evers (and many other martyrs) to the African American community. His death is a pivotal, catalyzing moment in our community’s consciousness, like the Stonewall Riots (which, coincidentally, happened on June 28, 1969 — 40 years ago this month) were to the gay community.
Now, I’m concerned that young Asian American Pacific Islanders, who are much better than my generation about hanging out with each other without regard to each other’s ethnicity (a ripple-effect of the pan-Asian networking that followed Chin’s death), and who identify themselves as Asian Americans instead of being ashamed, embarrassed or staying invisible and trying to quietly assimilate into mainstream America, may not know who Vincent Chin was. It’s only when they start wondering about their identity and delve into their history that Vincent Chin’s story emerges.
That’s why Chin is on my mind today, on the 27th anniversary of his death. I want to keep the tragedy of the attack alive, so someone else will remember later.