Vincent Chin and Asian-American Civil Rights (Video)

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

As Frank H. Wu, chancellor and dean of the Hastings College of the Law, University of California, writes in a New York Times op-ed,

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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Image from a screenshot of a video uploaded by tonylamfilms via YouTube

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Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright3 years ago

ii q.......they got 3 years PROBATION and a small fine for taking the life of Vincent Chin. I live in Michigan and remember this story all too well. These two pieces of $h!t have been free for 30 years and what did Vincent Chin get? Oh yea, savagely beaten with a baseball bat.

Anyone here think our society has gotten better or more civilized in those 30 years or worse?

Biby C.
Biby C.3 years ago

People of any race have the right to live where they want to live as long as they meet that particular country's criteria. More and more people are crossing borders in this age of globalisation. So better get used to it.

Lauren B.

Some people use their feelings to justify murder, some use religion, some use economics, some use politics, many use's just murder. There is no justification.

Lauren B.

Some people use their feelings to justify murder, some use religion, some use economics, some use politics, many use's just murder. There is no justification.

Winn Adams
Winn Adams3 years ago

Very tragic and sad story. This didn't have to happen.

Asabe Yar'Adua

Sad...Human right is essential, no matter the ethnic and background....we should be given equal right

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for the post.

Dominic C.
Dominic C.3 years ago

Today in Kuala Lumpur, there are many Americans working in the MNCs or American firms based here in Malaysia. That partnership is bound to keep the world revolving and today major corporations like Microsoft or MAC are world corporations that employ thousands if not millions as well. So a ripple effect whether in the US, Russia or China will have ripple effects elsewhere in the world.

Despite Vincent Chin's impartial and unfair, the Vincent Chin issue created somewhat of a quiet justification of purpose. Despite being small, awareness start small and unknown but look today - American bosses are breathing down my neck to get work done.

Dominic C.
Dominic C.3 years ago

GM, Chrysler and Ford were becoming really, really unpopular and many manufacturing plants closed down or re-modeled (to make it efficient) in Dearbon, Flint, Thomson, etc. Many workers lost their jobs because American made cars lost their quality control to the Japanese that used robotics. Detroit used to be one of the most vibrant economies and cities in the US and if you look at Detroit today, its a junkyard town. Lansing and Ann Arbor were also pretty much affected - local student (from in-state MI) also depreciates and schools like UofM, State, Western and Eastern Michigan Universities relied heavily on foreign student intakes.
So when Ray asked me where I was from, I told him I came from Malaysia. When I showed him on the map, (not sure he was joking or poking fun of me) he asked whether I lived in trees. I tried to be diplomatic then and laughed it off as a joke and tried to pacify and get along with almost a white male population on the 3rd floor of McDonnell Hall. But Ray did feel compel to learn about the world and on his first day of registration, one of his registered classes was World Regional Geography. Today, the world of America is so much advanced and understood and because of American curiosity it had turned into a dangerous saga because many wanted to go to places where no one will tread and many wanted to see hotspots.

Dominic C.
Dominic C.3 years ago

I still remember the Vincent Chin saga. But I was not in Michigan yet. I was still in Malaysia and never thought I would be in North America for 10 years as a second home and my development. Till this day I am still a patriot for the country that really gives me so much. Anyway when I was in Michigan in the mid 80s, every American I met either thought I was either Vietnamese or Japanese. The funny thing was Univ of Michigan and Michigan State University are really good institutions in the BiG 10 and UofM was or is still considered the Harvard of the BiG 10. The funny thing was many Americans in college (during my time) were either rude or ignorant ( I do not wish to be rash, here). But later, I found out that many of them have problems with Geography and President Reagan and VP Bush Snr. were appalled by many of the Americans ignorance. There was even a campaign then to get children to learn Georgraphy. The fact of the matter here was that many Americans (back then) when they looked at you, you are either Vietnamese or Japanese. Why? Because Americans then really hated Vietnam and secondly, the Japanese overtook them in the motor industry.