By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, PBS NewsHour
Director and writer Curtis Chin grew up in Detroit’s small, close-knit Chinatown. His family owned Chung’s, a long-popular Chinese restaurant and local landmark, which was sold in 2006 after his father died.
There were only a handful of Chins in the Detroit area, he recalled — “It was mostly Yees” — so those who shared the same family association were close. In the summer of 1982, when he was 14, he and his family were planning to attend the wedding of family friend Vincent Chin, where Curtis’ uncle was serving as best man.
They attended his funeral instead.
“Vincent Chin’s death was very personal to me,” said Curtis Chin, who is writing a memoir about growing up in Detroit Chinatown. “He was one of our own, and there weren’t many of us to begin with. It was only after the case started garnering outside attention that I realized his death had a greater significance.”
Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American man, had been beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Highland Park, a Metro Detroit suburb. Chin had been celebrating his bachelor party with friends at the Fancy Pants Club when he encountered the men, who were angry at the U.S. auto industry’s struggles and massive layoffs at a time when the number of Japanese cars in America was growing.
The men confronted Chin inside a bar, one saying “It’s because of you little m-f-s that we are out of work,” according to witnesses. After both groups were thrown out of the club, the fight continued in the parking lot and then the groups separated. After searching for thirty minutes, the men found Chin sitting outside of a McDonald’s and attacked him until stopped by two off-duty police officers. Chin died four days later.
The men entered a plea bargain to bring second degree murder charges down to manslaughter. They were each sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,000 plus $780 in court costs.
Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin, asked, “What kind of justice is this? What kind of law?”
At the time, such a light sentence for such a brutal killing brought together Asian Americans across ethnic lines to form multiethnic and multiracial alliances, to organize for civil rights, and to advocate for change in the Metro Detroit area and across the country. Some formed American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), an Asian American civil rights nonprofit, to rally and advocate for justice for Vincent Chin.
A federal civil rights trial was held in Detroit, and one of the men was found guilty of violating Vincent Chin’s civil rights and sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, that ruling was overturned on appeal after a change of venue to Cinncinati. After that, a civil suit for wrongful death followed, and one of the men was ordered to pay $1.5 million, an amount which has now grown to about $10 million, according to ACJ. The younger man was ordered to pay $65,600 which he paid. To this day, neither man has spent a full day in jail.
Forty years after Chin’s death, however, even amid a rise of anti-Asian American attacks in the past two years, his legacy is largely unfamiliar outside of – and sometimes even within – Asian American circles.
Detroit Public Television’s One Detroit spoke to filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, alongside Detroit Public TV’s Juanita Anderson about the making of the documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” Video by One Detroit.
Vincent Chin’s story is taught in Asian American Studies programs across the country, and the 1987 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” by filmmakers Renee Tajima-Pena and Christine Choy has become a mainstay of these courses and was recently restored and added to the prestigious National Film Registry. Yet even in Michigan, students are still largely encountering the Vincent Chin case for the first time only if they happen to take an Asian American Studies course in college.
“Occasionally, some students already know about Vincent Chin from high school history courses, but the majority, I’d say, come across the story for the first time in our courses,” said University of Michigan professor Manan Desai, who directs the school’s Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies program. Despite growing up in Michigan, he did not learn about the Vincent Chin case until he was in college. “[Students] express shock that they were not made aware of it, as well as dismay about the failure of the justice system.”
Curtis Chin encountered the same lack of familiarity when he made “Vincent Who?”, a 2009 documentary film about the legacy of the Vincent Chin case. “Even in our community, I am not sure how many people know about the case,” Curtis Chin said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that his death was over 40 years ago when most current Asian Americans weren’t born or living in this country yet. For non-Asians, I think it’s just their inexperience with centering Asian Americans in their stories.”
Part of a Larger History
The killing of Vincent Chin is part of a long history of how Asian Americans have been treated in America.
“Vincent’s death didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Curtis Chin said. “That’s why it’s so important to include Asian American history in the classroom. We have to connect this to a larger pattern,” which includes dispelling stereotypes.
Learning about the Vincent Chin case can be deeply personal for some Asian Americans while navigating their own identity issues.
“I didn’t know who I truly was until I found my identity as an Asian American,” said Ayesha Ghazi Edwin, chairperson of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and former executive director of ACJ, was born in London, grew up in Ann Arbor, and is now running for Ann Arbor City Council. A key piece of understanding and processing her own story as a South Asian American immigrant woman was learning about the Vincent Chin case and how she fit into the arc of Asian American history.
Michigan State Senator Stephanie Chang grew up in the Metro Detroit area and first learned about the Vincent Chin case when she joined Canton High School’s Asian Pacific American Club (APAC). The teacher who advised the club gave her a copy of “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People” by Helen Zia, the first chapter of which is about Zia’s role in fighting for justice for Vincent Chin.
“Learning about Vincent Chin and about the pan-Asian American activism that was sparked by his death was a critical moment for me,” Sen. Chang told the NewsHour. “I became interested in working in civil rights and social justice — and that led me to being a student activist in college and later a community organizer, and then a state legislator grounded in fighting injustice.”
Once they’re aware of the case, students are quick to make connections to the present day. “More recently,” Desai said, “They have connected to other instances of anti-Asian violence, including the anti-Asian harassment and violence that has coincided with the pandemic. Students often make the connection between the speed at how Asian bodies are perceived ‘foreign threats’ — as ‘viral agents,’ ‘economic threats,’ or ‘enemies within’ — as in the case of World War II or post-9/11.”
Anti-Asian American hate incidents and hate crimes and discrimination reach back centuries. Laws have prohibited Asians from becoming naturalized citizens, owning land, testifying against white people in court, marrying white people, and entering the U.S. The largest lynching in American history was the 1871 retaliatory killing of 18 Chinese people in Los Angeles. At the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, at least 28 Chinese miners were killed and 15 others wounded after a labor dispute.
In 1907, a mob of 500 white men in Bellingham, Washington attacked and forced out several hundred mostly Sikh men over fears of labor competition at lumber mills. During World War II, about 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, were incarcerated in concentration camps. After 9/11, there was a 1600 percent increase in discrimination, hate incidents, and hate crimes against Sikh, Muslim, South Asian and Arab Americans and others mistaken for stereotypes of terrorists reported to the FBI.
More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been a surge of hate incidents and hate crimes against the Asian American population. A study by AAPI Data and Momentive indicates that 15 percent of Asian Americans and 12 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders experienced a hate incident or hate crime in 2021.
But, “the Vincent Chin case was significant for all of the shortcomings it exposed in the criminal justice system,” said Roland Hwang, attorney and board president of ACJ.
Some of the legal changes that came about in Michigan because of the Vincent Chin case, according to Hwang, include mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and requiring judges to articulate reasons for deviating from the mandatory minimum sentence.
The case also brought added significance to victim’s impact statements – in which victims or their family talk about the importance of the victim and the impact of the crime – which was not common practice then. On a local level, the case brought a change in the way the Wayne County prosecutor’s office treated sentencing, sending prosecutors to the sentencing phase of trials and treating sentencing as an important part of the judicial process, which was not the practice then.
In addition, Hwang said, “The Vincent Chin case illustrated that an immigrant, a Chinese American victim and Asian American victims generally were and were entitled to be covered by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act, not just African Americans.”
The community organizing spurred by the case was noteworthy at the time because the concept of “Asian American” was still new, except for on college campuses where the term had been coined by student activists Emma Gee and Yuri Ichioka in the late sixties. What Asian Americans share across differences of ethnicity, language, religion, class, and culture can be taken for granted today, but at the time those commonalities of experience in America were not so readily recognized.
“The Vincent Chin case is important because it brought Asian American communities together across ethnic lines to stand up against injustice and to stand for equal rights for all people,” Sen. Chang said.
Younger activists want to build upon this activism and find broader and structural solutions in addition to those within the legal system.
“Forty years later, we know that anti-Asian hate incidents, hate crimes and discrimination are still happening across the country due to scapegoating during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have so much more work to do to ensure that all people are welcome in our communities and can live without fear of being targeted because of their race,” Sen. Chang said.
Detroit Public Television’s One Detroit spoke to Michigan activists about how the rise of anti-Asian American hate revives the Asian American civil rights movement 40 years after the killing of Vincent Chin. Video by One Detroit.
Rachel Koelzer, communications manager at NAKASEC, a national Korean American and Asian American social justice nonprofit, said that while people often point to hate crime legislation as a solution, “the reality is, it falls far short.”
“It doesn’t address the root causes of violence and harm, and it increases the harm upon marginalized communities,” said Koelzer, who grew up in the Metro Detroit area.”
“We’re seeing history repeat itself. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Great Replacement Theory, the blaming of Asians and marginalized communities for various social, structural, and systemic issues is not new. Nor is the violence that is emboldened by these claims,” Koelzer said. “Real solutions include addressing the root causes of violence: Access to vital resources; stopping hate speech, especially by people in power; data collection with language access and disaggregation for our diverse communities; and taking action on immigration.”
As anti-Asian American hate crimes and hate incidents continue to happen, the Vincent Chin case has new relevance.
“The racial animus and hatred at the time of the Vincent Chin case during the auto industry recession of the early ‘80s is much the same as what you see during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hwang said. “Coalition building and community organizing was important for the Vincent Chin case to move forward. And [American Citizens for Justice] and other community organizations continue coalition-building work today.”
As part of the Vincent Chin 40th commemoration in Detroit, ACJ has created a free workbook for secondary students to learn about the case, “The Vincent Chin Legacy Guide: Asian Americans Building the Movement,” by Helen Zia.
One way to create the basis for that kind of solidarity lies in education so that people know each others’ histories, Sen. Chang said. Sen. Chang along with four of her legislative colleagues has introduced bills to mandate all Michigan students learn Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Arab and Chaldean history in Michigan’s K-12 schools.
“Over the past year and a half, I’ve talked with so many parents, teachers, and community members all asking, ‘Why are our children not learning Asian American history in our schools?’” Sen. Chang said. “If our children can learn about the contributions of people of color and the struggles and triumphs our communities have faced, perhaps there will be better cultural understanding, more welcoming and inclusion, less hate, and a future filled with more opportunities for all people.”
In Washington D.C., dozens of Asian American nonprofit groups — including Asian Americans Advancing Justice AAJC, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, APIAVote, NAKASEC, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and many more — are coming together on June 25 for an Asian American led Unity March onto the National Mall.
“The Unity March is a multi-issue, multicultural mobilization that aims to bring new people into the movement for racial and economic justice; demonstrate our collective strength as Asian Americans and allies; and reiterate our commitment to building cross-racial, intersectional people power,” Tiffany Chang, lead organizer for the Unity March, told the NewsHour. “The message is that if we are demanding an end to violence against Asian American communities, then we need to stand together with communities that have been targeted with hate historically: Black, Indigenous, Arab, Muslim, and LGBTQIA+ communities, and so many more.”
Tiffany Chang notes that there is renewed attention to anti-Asian American violence, but also growing concern among young Asian Americans about police violence against Black and brown people. “Many Asian Americans are asking ourselves, ‘What is our responsibility as Asian Americans in combating racism and xenophobia in this country? How can we meaningfully show up for our neighbors who have been dealing with this violence for decades?’” Tiffany Chang said. “Forty years ago, after the murder of Vincent Chin, we saw the formation of a pan-Asian identity, and other communities of color stood by us in those moments. Today, we have to ask ourselves those questions again: who are we now as Asian Americans, and what is the work that lies before us in order to achieve a fair, multiracial democracy?”
The fear of anti-Asian American violence is an effective motivator for many Asian Americans to become more politically involved right now, Tiffany Chang said. But she warns that relying on the issue of anti-Asian American violence alone is not enough to build power. “The Stop Asian Hate Movement is not sustainable in and of itself without a broader commitment towards collective liberation and solutions that go beyond the Asian American community. What happens when the media moves on from these lurid images of Asians being kicked, spat on, and pushed to the ground?”
“We have to get to work organizing our people, and creating relationships with other communities. We can’t do this alone. No community can. We have to show up even when we’re not the ones being targeted, because we can’t predict when public sentiment will turn,” Tiffany Chang said.
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