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Atlanta killings revive memory of Vincent Chin and another time of Anti-Asian sentiment

Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 23, marks 39 years since a young Chinese-American named Vincent Chin died after being beaten by two white autoworkers in metro-Detroit. His death came at a time of heightened anti-Asian bias. Many in the region blamed a decline in the local auto industry at the time on Japanese auto-manufacturers.

Chin was Chinese-American, not Japanese. His killing led Asian Americans activists to think of themselves as part of a single racial group.

The following remembrance was originally published on April 5, 2021. We are re-sharing it to commemorate the anniversary of his death.

The killing of six Asian women and two others at spas in Atlanta last month, has revived the memory of a young Chinese-American who died after being beaten by two autoworkers in Highland Park in 1982. Vincent Chin was killed during a time of heightened anti-Asian sentiment, with Asian Americans bearing the blame for the decline in the auto-industry, not unlike how they have been attacked for causing COVID-19 now.

The Big Three automakers faced plummeting sales and significant layoffs in the late 1970s and early 1980s; more than 200,000 autoworkers across the country their jobs in a single week in 1980.

James Shimoura, a Japanese-American who grew up in Detroit, recalled that both industry and union leadersblamed their losses on competition from Japanese car imports for the decline.

That’s what Shimoura thinks happened to Vincent Chin. Chin got into a fight at a stripclub where he’d been celebrating his bachelor party. He fled. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, the two men that he’d brawled with, searched for him down the street. When they found him, they beat him with a baseball bat until his skull cracked.

Both of the men who bludgeoned Chin were autoworkers, one of them was out of work. Witnesses said they used racial slurs and told Chin, quote: “It's because of you little m—f—s that we're out of work.” Chin was Chinese-American, not Japanese.

Helen Zia, who became an activist seeking justice for Chin, felt that being Asian in Detroit made her feel like she wore a target on her back.

“We are today going through a very similar period, except I would say that today is worse,” Zia said, noting that anti-Asian rhetoric tied to the pandemic isn’t limited to a certain industry or organization like it was in the 1980s but from the leaders of this country, including former President Donald Trump.

Trump first used the phrase “China virus” in a tweet exactly one year before a gunman shot up the massage parlors in Atlanta. Some — including the alleged killer, Robert Aaron Long — have said the killings were not “racially-motivated.” He told authorities that he wanted to “eliminate the temptation” behind a sexual addiction.

Zia doesn’t agree with that assessment. “The way Asian-American women are are racialized and become targets in this country have everything to do with their gender and how they are seen as sex objects,” she said.

“Asian-American women are often fetishized in very particular ways,” concurred Peter Ho Davies, who wrote a fictionalized account of Chin’s death in his novel, The Fortunes. “But it also has a parallel in the way that Asian-American men are sometimes seen as emasculated, I think, by white culture. And I'm wondering now, what it meant in the context of a stripclub to see an Asian American man in some kind of sexual context, whether that was maybe part of the flashpoint of the violence that developed in that space as well.”

When the Atlanta law enforcement officer described the spa shootings as the result of a “bad day,” Ho Davies was reminded of how the judge who first heard Chin’s case sentenced his attackers to probation and fines.

Judge Charles Kaufman explained his decision in an interview for a documentary made several years after Chin’s death. “The victim lingered for four days, which, again, based upon everything, was indicative to me that they attempted to administer a punishment. They did this too severely in careless, reckless disregard of human life, which is what manslaughter is,” he explained. “And that's what they were found guilty of. And that's what I predicated my sentence on. Had it been a brutal murder.”

In subsequent federal trials, both Ebens and Nitz were ultimately cleared of criminal charges; neither spent a day in jail.

James Shimoura, the attorney, says that outcome still makes his “blood boil.” There’s a plaque commemorating Chin in Ferndale, across the street from what used to be the Golden Star Restaurant. Chin had worked there part time to supplement his income as a draftsman and it became a meeting place for the activists.

“We’re all targets: That's the one critical thing that came out of the case,” Shimoura said. “People realized I’m Asian and it could have been me that night. It raised the consciousness for millions of people, Asian-Americans in this country.”

Vincent Chin spent four days in a coma before he died. He was buried a week after his bachelor party and a day after he was supposed to have been married.

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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