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30 years later, remembering Vincent Chin

Asian-American and civil rights activists commemorated the 30-year anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death this weekend.

Chin’s murder outside a Highland Park strip club in 1982—just days before his wedding--is widely credited with galvanizing a national Asian-American civil rights movement.

Two unemployed auto workers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, beat Chin to death with a baseball bat. Witnesses testified that the two had mistaken Chin for Japanese, shouted racial slurs at him, and blamed Asians for taking their jobs. But neither man ever served a day in prison.

Frank Wu is a Detroit native, and now the Dean of the University of California-Hastings Law school. He was the keynote speaker at an event honoring Chin at the Chinese-American Community Center in Madison Heights Saturday.

Wu says that prior to Chin’s death, there was little sense of an “Asian-American” community. But the incident showed the need for Asian-Americans of all nationalities to find common cause.

“Here in the United States—because of this sentiment, because someone who was Chinese could be mistaken for someone who was Japanese—it was so important to come together,” Wu said.

(See Wu's New York Times op-ed about why Vincent Chin's death still matters here).

Those who gathered to remember Chin say they’re worried Asian-Americans now face a similar situation with China’s growing economic clout.

Teresa Tran is Vice President of Asian-Pacific Islander American Vote of Michigan.  She says that, especially in a Presidential election year, there’s concern that anti-China rhetoric could result in scapegoating Asian-Americans.

And Tran says there’s concern it could also threaten the pan-Asian-American coalition that arose in the wake of Chin’s death.

 “There’s a history of that--of politicians, policies, etc, that drive our community apart,” Tran said. “So this is a time we have to learn from what’s happened in the past—what happened in the Vincent Chin case, what happened post-9/11—to stay in coalition and support one another.”

In addition to sparking a true Asian-American civil rights movement, Chin’s death also brought about changes in the justice system.

His killers largely escaped punishment. But the fallout from that spurred reforms like mandatory minimum sentencing, victim impact statements at sentencing, and federal hate crime statutes.




Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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