Detroit and the Legacy of Vincent Chin

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Scott Kurashige

IN JUNE 2002, Detroit-area activists marked the 20th anniversary of the hate crime murder of Chinese American Detroiter Vincent Chin. The successful memorial conference included a poetry slam and a visit to the cemetery where Vincent and his mother Lily Chin are buried.

Asian American activists in a number of cities across the country — including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Seattle — also held commemoration meetings.

In June of 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death by Michael Nitz and Ronald Ebens, who after a night of heavy drinking assumed Chin was Japanese. They scapegoated Chin for the economic woes of U.S. auto workers.

Nitz and Ebens were sentenced in state criminal trials to three years of probation and $3,780 in fines and court fees but never served one day in prison. Ebens’ federal conviction on civil rights violations was overturned on appeal, and his acquittal in a second trial caused shock and outrage throughout the Asian American community.

Rededication to Justice

While sparked by a terrible tragedy, these commemorations also served as a tribute to the Justice for Vincent Chin Movement, which drew public attention to the rising tide of Japan-bashing and anti-Asian violence and helped to generate a new wave of anti-racist activism and pan-Asian community organizing.

Indeed, the movement lives on as new generations learn about the history of the case — most often by seeing Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pea’s gripping documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”

Angered by killer Ronald Ebens’ lack of remorse, outraged at Judge Charles Kaufman’s complacency, inspired by the activism of the American Citizens for Justice, and moved by Lily Chin’s declaration of “I want justice for Vincent!” many young Asian Americans turned to political activism and community service to channel their emotional energy.

Like many Asian Pacific Americans who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, my own politicization can be directly traced to the movement against anti-Asian violence. However, my whole understanding of the meaning of the Chin case has been transformed since I moved to Detroit a year ago.

The process of building the “Rededication to Justice: Vincent Chin 20th Year Remembrance” has provided an opportunity to meet a broad cross-section of the Asian Pacific American community and better comprehend their relationship to the people and history of Detroit.

As I think about the legacy of Vincent Chin and work to ensure that his life was not lost in vain, I consider the problem of racist violence to represent only the tip of the iceberg. Though my thoughts on how to put the Chin case into the context of Asian American and Detroit history are still a work-in-progress, I offer three points for us to consider.

I. Dangers of Standing Out

For successive waves of migrants — peasants from Europe, African-American sharecroppers from the South, and the current wave of Arabs and Middle Easterners — Detroit has represented an escape from turmoil and a chance to build a new life.

But each group has been a target of stereotypes and hostility: Europeans for “importing Communism;” African Americans for “lowering property values;” and now Arab, South Asian and Muslim Americans for being “linked to terrorism.”

Vincent Chin’s murder showed that Asian Pacific Americans were not immune to such attacks and scapegoating; and as with the other cases, Chin was targeted only because of the twisted logic of racists who saw him as an enemy.

Too many Americans chose to bash the monolithic specter of “Japanese imports” rather than take on the more daunting challenge of holding corporations and politicians accountable for their shortcomings. Too many like Ebens and Nitz went a step further by assaulting Detroiters who simply looked Asian.

II. Dangers of Being Invisible

Asians have historically looked to Detroit as a place to escape persecution and exploitation. Early Chinese immigrants may have followed the railroad routes east away from the West Coast bases of the Chinese exclusion drive.

Some Filipino farm workers of the 1920s and `30s looked to exchange long, back-breaking days of work in the scorching California sun for $5-a-day jobs in the Ford plant. During World War II, a select number of American-born Japanese were given the chance to leave the U.S. government’s concentration camps, if they promised not to return to their homes on the West Coast but settle instead in Midwestern cities like Detroit.

Southeast Asian refugees like the Hmong and Vietnamese have settled here after being uprooted by the turmoil of the Vietnam War. And thousands of Korean orphans have found themselves in new homes after being adopted by Michigan families.

Because of the danger of “standing out” and “looking different,” Asian Pacific Americans have often tried to simply “blend into the crowd.” Japanese Americans were told by government officials, whites seeking to help them, and their own community leaders not to live around other Japanese Americans but to raise their children to assimilate into mainstream society.

Others like Grace Lee Boggs and the father of State Representative Hansen Clarke (an immigrant from India) found their homes in the African-American community. But the Chin case taught us that being a small and invisible minority has negative consequences, as well. Chin’s murder aroused little initial notice in the media and his family and friends were given almost no attention by the legal system.

The American Citizens for Justice, formed in response to Vincent Chin’s murder, even needed to debate legal scholars and lobby the federal government to demonstrate that Asian Pacific Americans deserve to be protected by civil rights statutes.

III. Challenge of Building Community

We would be remiss if we saw the murder of Vincent Chin as only a tragedy for Asian Pacific Americans. It is a tragic moment in the history of Detroit and in the decline of community in America.

“Who Killed Vincent Chin?” was filmed in a variety of neighborhood settings. It is clear that in Detroit all social life revolved around work in the factory; but such neighborhoods achieved their “stability” by excluding people of color, often through violent means.

The economic collapse of cities like Detroit tore apart these communities and particularly eroded the status of the male breadwinner. Ronald Ebens’ anger at Vincent Chin began with an argument over three things: Who had the right to be in America? Who had the right to be in the Fancy Pants bar? Who had the right to control the women performers on stage?

Perhaps Ebens saw the same emasculated Asians (who in his eyes caused the decline of the American economy) now challenging the one thing he claimed as his own: his manhood.

Many observers say that Detroit’s greatest days were in the past. But those “good old days” were not so good for everyone. Segregation, discrimination, patriarchy and dependence on big business were also part of the equation.

This remembrance provided us with an opportunity to reflect upon our history and to develop new strategies for building healthier communities under the new conditions of the 21st century. We need to ensure that the empowerment of the rapidly growing Asian Pacific American suburban population not leave behind working-class communities in inner city Detroit, where most Hmong, Bangladeshi and many Chinese Americans live.

Consider this a “preventive medicine” approach to stopping anti-Asian violence.For instance, Detroit Chinatown has been reduced to a half-block of a low-income neighborhood. This sliver is held intact by the On Leong and Association of Chinese Americans Drop-in Center.

We can carry on the legacy of the Justice for Vincent Chin Movement by working to revitalize areas like this and working to provide needed services like low-income housing, health care, education, and legal aid.

Literally putting Asian Pacific Americans “on the map” in this way will serve to counter the danger of invisibility, promoting greater knowledge of the long history of Asians in Detroit and the new possibilities in the future.

ATC 101, November-December 2002