27-year-old Vincent Chin was beaten with a baseball bat by Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, after a fight at a bar in Detroit on June 19, 1982, and died four days later. Ebens, a Chrysler plant supervisor, and Nitz, shouted “It’s because of you little m—— that we’re out of work!” at Chin. Chin, who had been celebrating his bachelor party at the bar, was buried on what would have been his wedding day. Ebens and Nitz did not deny what they had done but claimed that it had all been a barroom brawl. Originally charged with second degree murder, they pleaded to manslaughter and received three years’ probation and were fined $3,000.
Ebens and Nitz killed Chin because they blamed him, an assimilated Chinese-American whose parents were immigrants, for the success of the Japanese auto industry and equated him with Japanese automakers.
Below is the trailer for Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a 1989 documentary by Christine Choy.
The Asian-American Civil Rights Movement
The killing catalyzed political activity among Asian-Americans — whose numbers had steadily increased since the 1965 overhaul of immigration laws but who then represented only about 1.5 percent of the population — as never before. “Remember Vincent Chin” turned into a rallying cry; for the first time, Asian-Americans of every background angrily protested in cities across the country.
Chin’s brutal death and his killers being allowed to escape justice galvanized Asian-Americans in ways that decades of discrimination — Wu recounts the 1892 Chinese Exclusion Act, the unconstitutional internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and the “legacy of America’s wars in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam” — had never before. In 1983, federal prosecutors brought civil rights charges against Ebens and Nitz. Ebens was convicted of violating Chin’s civil rights and sentenced to 25 years in prison, though the sentence was overturned on appeal.
Asian-Americans are a highly diverse population, “more a demographic category than a community arising from shared language, religion, history or culture,” as Wu writes. Chin’s brutal death brought into focus that, despite the differences, Asians are perceived as being the same, as perpetual foreigners and “others”: “The fifth-generation Japanese-American from California, the Hmong refugee in Wisconsin, the Indian engineer in Texas, the Korean adoptee in Chicago and the Pakistani taxi driver in New York — all have at times been made to feel alien, sometimes immutably so.”
The Enduring Myth of the Model Minority
As a Pew Research Center study, “The Rise of Asian-Americans,” reported this past Tuesday, Asians have surpassed Hispanics as the US’s fastest-growing ethnic group in 2009. When Chin was killed in 1982, Asians represented only 1.5 percent of the population; they now make up 5.8 percent. The Pew study reported a finding that is not unfamiliar, that Asians, as a whole, have higher levels of education and income than whites, black or Hispanics. While it did acknowledge that Asians, especially undocumented immigrants and refugees, still face discrmination, poverty and language and cultural barriers, Wu notes that the study, however unintentionally, is yet another testament to the enduring “model minority” myth of “Asian-Americans as overachieving nerds” — that to be Asian is to be smart, academically and economically successful.
The myth is too good to be true; Asian-Americans themselves have been known to, knowingly or not, perpetuate it. The killing of Chin because Ebens and Nitz mistakenly equated him with “Japan Inc.,” shows the dangers of not recognizing that to be Asian means a lot more than stereotypes of getting straight A’s, having a college decree and a good job as an engineer; of believing that “they’re all alike.”
This past Thursday, Michigan’s Oakland County Commissioner Craig Covey, D-Ferndale, presented a proclamation to commemorate Chin’s death to Prasanna Vengadam, president of the American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), which was founded to fight hate crimes against Asian Americans. ACJ is holding the “30th Year Remembrance of Vincent Chin” today, with discussions and presentations. As Covey says in the Detroit Free Press:
Even in 2012, in a diverse county like Oakland County — whereyou have a large population of Laotian folks; Filipinos; Chinese Americans; obviously gay/lesbian Americans; black population; growing Latino populations in Pontiac; Chaldean, and Muslim populations — we still have people in this county that don’t understand diversity. They don’t understand that this is America, that this is the future.
Not only is it the future: Asian-Americans are certainly part of the US’s past, going back to the 19th century and the building of the transcontinental railroad. As we remember Vincent Chin today on the 30th anniversary of the death — and as “China Inc.” has replaced Japan as a feared competitor — we need to be aware of the varieties of Asian Americans and Asian American experience and make sure what happened to Chin on a hot summer night in Highland Park, Michigan, does not happen again.
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