Murder of Asian American decades ago newly relevant in era of 'Kung flu,' experts say

On June 23, 1982, a Chinese-American engineer named Vincent Chin died in a Detroit hospital. Four nights earlier, Chin, 27, had been celebrating his bachelor party at a topless bar when two white autoworkers mistook him for being Japanese and accused him of stealing their jobs.

“It’s because of you motherf------ that we’re out of work,” they reportedly told him before bludgeoning his skull with a baseball bat. His last words, according to witnesses, were: “It’s not fair.”

Chin’s death galvanized the Asian diaspora on a scale not seen before or since. The lenient punishment his assailants received after pleading guilty to manslaughter — probation and a $3,000 fine, with no prison time — sparked protests across the country and united people from different ethnic groups. A generation of Asian Americans devoted their lives to public service, forming a host of new coalitions and civil rights organizations.

Vincent Chin was 27-year-old when he was beaten with a baseball bat in Detroit. He would later die from his injuries. (Courtesy of American Citizens of Justice)
Vincent Chin was 27-year-old when he was beaten with a baseball bat in Detroit. He would later die from his injuries. (Courtesy of American Citizens of Justice)

This year, Chin’s death has taken on renewed urgency as Asian American Pacific Islanders are again being scapegoated for an international crisis they have no control over: the coronavirus pandemic. Hate crimes have spiked while business at Asian restaurants has plummeted. And anti-Asian rhetoric has been endorsed at the highest level: At a Saturday rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu.”

“We’re in another pandemic of hate,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” and producer of the recent PBS film series “Asian Americans.” “It’s a wake-up call we’re seen as the 'other,' that 'model minority' is a wedge that helps to perpetuate systemic racism.”

Nearly four decades after Chin's death, activists who lived through it describe it as a pivotal moment that crystallized their status as secondary citizens living on the margins of society.

“Nobody outside of the Detroit area had heard about his death until the sentence came down,” Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, told NBC Asian America. “That really sent shockwaves. It was a reminder that what happened on an international front can definitely affect how Asian Americans are treated.”

In the early 1980s, the success of fuel-efficient Japanese cars devastated U.S. automakers already suffering from a recession. In Detroit, once the car capital of the world, laid-off workers destroyed Japanese models and attacked anyone who looked to be Japanese, including Chin.

AAPI history is built atop “fault lines of xenophobia” that have erupted during global crises, Tajima-Peña said, noting that the recent spate of hate crimes falls in line with the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the racial profiling of Arab and South Asian Americans after 9/11. Understanding that Chin’s death is a continuation of this history is crucial because it shows that the roots of anti-Asian hate is white supremacy, Tajima-Peña said. By the same logic, she said, AAPIs should resist invoking Chin’s case solely as a grievance to prove they’ve been oppressed, without acknowledging that racial violence is intersectional.

“We can’t keep on recalling something that happened 30 years ago without conceptualizing how anti-Asian hate is connected to this constant drumbeat of violence against Black, brown and Indigenous people,” she said. “Justice isn’t ‘Just Us.’”

There are valuable lessons about multiracial coalition building that AAPI activists today can glean from Chin’s case, said Roland Hwang, the co-founder and former president of American Citizens for Justice, the Detroit-based advocacy group formed after Chin’s killing.

A year after Chin’s death, Black civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson and leaders of the NAACP showed up at new conferences and protests to show support for the cause and raise its profile.

“The civil rights movement was always a biracial situation, with a Black-white paradigm,” Hwang said. “We owe it to Black civil rights leaders that it came to include all people of color.”

But this solidarity between Black and Asian Americans that stretches back decades goes unmentioned in history books. Chin’s legacy, too, is unknown to even most AAPIs today.

“Education should teach about all populations in America,” Hwang said. “U.S. history, for the most part, is taught from a majority-lens that doesn’t account enough for the accomplishments and contributions from communities of color.”

In 1984, American Citizens for Justice, along with a few other groups, successfully petitioned the Department of Justice to prosecute Chin’s attackers on hate crime charges. One of them, Ronald Ebens, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years, though the charges were eventually dropped and he never spent any time behind bars. Helen Zia, executor of the Chin estate and co-founder of American Citizens for Justice, told NBC News in 2015 that Ebens still owed the estate more than $8 million.

Nevertheless, Chin was the first Asian American to be protected by civil rights laws enacted in 1964, said Kwoh, who worked on the case as an attorney. “It was the first time Asians were recognized as a protected class.”

While Kwoh is hopeful about the progress that the AAPI community has made since the early 1980s, he said there’s still much work to be done to combat the bigotry and hate crimes that flare up in times of chaos. He laid out a three-pronged approach that includes tracking and prosecuting attacks against Asians, building alliances with other racial groups and unions, and putting out a curriculum on Asian American history.

“We’re in a dynamic period right now where Asian Americans are not the only ones being attacked,” Kwoh said. “So it’s incumbent on us to look at who we can ally with.”