The facts of the Vincent Chin Case and the birth of the Asian American civil rights movement

Remarks by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, former Executive Director and current Advisory Board member of American Citizens for Justice

December 22, 2010, Ferndale, Michigan

Installation of Vincent Chin case 34th Michigan Legal Milestone Plaque by the State Bar Association of Michigan and the City of Ferndale

Note: content of ACJ President Roland Hwang's remarks can be found here: http://www.michbar.org/journal/pdf/pdf4article1505.pdf

and Mayor Craig Covey's remarks can be found here: http://coveys-corner.blogspot.com/2010/12/full-text-of-mayors-remarks-vincent.html 

 

Before I came to Michigan for graduate school, the only thing I knew about Michigan was that Michigan 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. At the time, 1988, I was reassured that the Vincent Chin case was ancient history, long forgotten, not a big deal. I had a very naive understanding of the case. If I had better understood, I might not have come.

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 Vincent 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 Vincent Chin and his friends, and upon finding them outside of McDonald's, Nitz held Vincent Chin in a bear hug while Ebens struck Vincent 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.

(Now, the last time I was interviewed about this case, on live television, I was cut off at this point, the interviewer mistakenly satisfied that the Vincent Chin case was simply about racial violence, like this is the only time it has happened to an Asian American. However, really, the Vincent Chin case is about what happened next.)

Nine months later, 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."

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 of us.

Asian Americans came together here, formerly the Golden Star Restaurant, where Vincent Chin had worked as a waiter, where the lawyers in the group discussed all the legal options and concluded that legally there was nothing more to do. In the stunned silence that followed, counterpointed by the sobs of Mrs. Chin, Vincent's mother, Journalist Helen Zia's voice broke the silence, "But we have to say something. We can't not say anything."

 

It was at that moment that American Citizens for Justice and the Asian American civil rights movement were born. This was the first time that Asian Americans spontaneously mobilized around a unified cause. It taught Asian Americans how to speak up, organize, network, build coalitions, fundraise, work with the media. There were protest rallies and remembrance vigils across the country--including Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago--that brought together Asian Americans of all ethnicities--that were well-covered by the media because they seemed so incongruous--The Model Minority, scientists and engineers, waving protest banners?

Subsequently, there was a federal civil rights trial--first in Detroit which acquitted Nitz but found Ebens guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in jail, and then the retrial in Cincinnati, in which both men were aquitted. There was also a civil suit for unlawful death for which Nitz was ordered to pay $50,000 and Ebens $1.5 million (and then did not). To this day, neither Ebens nor Nitz has spent a single day in jail.

Since then, the history of the Vincent Chin case has become a staple in Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, American Cultures, and law courses around the country. Without this national mobilization and activism, there never would have been a federal hate crime trial or the subsequent legal changes that Roland Hwang will discuss next, and we would have been left with only Mrs. Chin's words:

 

"What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese. If two Chinese killed a white person, they must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives--Some thing is wrong with this country."

 

But, to borrow a phrase from writer Dan Savage, "It gets better."

 

A year ago, December 3, 2009, 27 Asian American students--many recent immigrants--were attacked at South Philadelphia High School in a day-long assault--including roving bands of students going from classroom to classroom searching for Asian American students to pull out of class and beat up. 13 Asian American students were sent to the hospital that day. The Asian American students staged an 8-day boycott. (Even the Asian American media joked that you know things are bad when model minority Asian American students are missing school.)

 

Again, the protests were not directed at the other students who were beating up the Asian American students, it was directed at school administrators who did nothing to protect the students while the violence escalated, for years, despite teachers and students repeatedly reporting concerns about safety.

 

Last week, the US Justice Department reached an agreement with the School District of Philadelphia to actively work towards preventing discrimination, harassment, and bullying in schools.

 

So as Michigan's economy continues to struggle and the air is full of panic about immigrants and competition from China, think about what else the United States could be teaching the world. One of the student leaders, Wei Chen, a recent immigrant from China, said he learned that, "You have the power to change the school. And, it's not just stay there, adult help you to change. You have the right, 'cause you are human being."

 

It has gotten better.

 

 

 

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is the former Executive Director and on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She is acting editor for IMDiversity.com Asian-American Village Online, where she writes most frequently on culture, family, lifestyles, and the arts. She writes a syndicated column called Adventures in Multicultural Living available at AnnArbor.com and Ethnoblog.NewAmericaMedia.org. She team-teaches Asian Pacific American History and the Law at the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Dearborn.