Remembering Vincent Chin 28 years later
Before I came to Michigan for graduate school, the only thing I knew about Michigan was that it was where Vincent Chin was killed. My parents’ Japanese-American neighbors warned me to sell my father’s Toyota 4-Runner and buy a Ford Bronco. I asked about safety as much as I did about academics before I decided to come.
Saturday was the 28th anniversary of the baseball bat beating that caused the death of Vincent Chin. Unfortunately, with the recession and rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, the case is even more relevant than ever.
Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese-American raised in Metro Detroit. A week before his wedding, June 19, 1982, he went to the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park with a few buddies for his bachelor’s party. There, they encountered two autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who, like many at the time, blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s troubles. Even though Chin was not Japanese and worked in the auto industry himself as a draftsman, Ebens was heard saying, “It’s because of you little m---f---s that we’re out of work,” as well as other anti-Asian racial epithets.
The men were thrown out of the bar, and the fight continued in the parking lot and into the night. Ebens and Nitz searched for Chin and his friends, and upon finding them, Nitz held Chin in a bear hug while Ebens struck Chin’s head four times with a baseball bat, cracking his skull. Vincent Chin died four days later. His wedding guests attended his funeral instead.
On March 18, 1983, Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced Ebens and Nitz to three years' probation and a $3,000 fine, saying, “These aren't the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” This was followed by a federal civil rights trial and a civil suit. To this day, neither Ebens nor Nitz has spent a single day in jail.
Such a light sentence for such a vicious crime was a shocking wake-up call for Asian-Americans of all ethnicities who suddenly realized the brutal consequences of the “all Asians look alike” stereotype and anti-Asian slurs. Coming to America, working hard, and keeping your head down per the model minority stereotype was not enough. This could have happened to anyone.
Last year, the State Bar of Michigan designated the Vincent Chin case as the 34th Michigan Legal Milestone. This case is credited with giving birth to the Asian-American civil rights movement and the victims rights movement. Many legal developments came out of this case that benefit all of us, including the practice of prosecutors attending sentencing hearings, victims and their families making a victim’s impact statement at sentencing, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, understanding the sensitive nature of changing venues, the importance of the media, and the formation of Asian-American civil rights organizations.
At this year's graduation, I marveled at the rainbow of faces and names of our beautiful children growing up so fast into proud and accomplished young men and women—together. I loved seeing the mix of kids all laughing and hugging as they posed for photos and signed each others’ yearbooks. On the same day, in Detroit, the Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing on HB 6256, an attempt at state-level immigration enforcement, Arizona-style. The impact of such legislation would cast doubt on all people of color, including American citizens, assumed to be guilty before proven innocent—like that night Vincent Chin was assumed to be guilty/foreign/other/to blame.
As part of the US Social Forum in Detroit, the Academy Award nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, will be shown at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Cobo Hall and a newer documentary, Vincent Who?, will be shown at 10 a.m. Wednesday, at AFSCME Building.
Note: Frances Wang is former Executive Director and current Advisory Board member of American Citizens for Justice, the nonprofit civil rights advocacy group founded after the murder of Vincent Chin.