This past week marks 40 years since the brutal murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, at the hands of two white autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan. On June 23, 1982, Ronald Ebens, a 43-year-old Chrysler plant supervisor, and his 22-year-old stepson Michael Nitz, a laid-off autoworker, beat Vincent Chin to death with a baseball bat because they thought he was Japanese. This act of racist terrorism was ostensibly in retaliation for the hardships they had to endure as American autoworkers in 1982 because of the competition from the Japanese automakers.
The two men responsible for the brutal murder of Mr. Chin never spent a night in jail and were given probation and a $3,000 fine. When asked why he handed down such a light sentence, Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman said, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. We’re talking here about a man who’s held down a responsible job for 17 or 18 years, and his son is employed and is a part-time student. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime, you make the punishment fit the criminal.” In response, Kin Yee, president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council at the time, argued that the sentences granted “a license to kill for $3,000, provided you have a steady job or are a student, and the victim is Chinese.”
The outrageously light sentence handed down by the judge made national headlines in 1983, served as a wake-up call for Asian Americans, and galvanized a civil rights movement within Asian communities across the nation.
The outrageously light sentence handed down by the judge made national headlines in 1983, served as a wake-up call for Asian Americans, and galvanized a civil rights movement within Asian communities across the nation. Furthermore, it helped solidify a new political identity of “Asian Americans” across the nation and other communities of color. Black civil rights leaders turned out in support of Vincent Chin’s mother and called for justice in her son’s name. Black leaders saw the same injustice perpetrated against African Americans play out against Asian Americans and refused to stay silent. Black leaders devoted time, energy, resources, and political connections to supporting the Chin family and raising awareness of the injustice perpetrated against Asian Americans.
Unfortunately, these outrageous terrorist actions against Asians and Asian Americans have not ended. In the past two years, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen sharply, spurred in no small part by President Trump and his supporters. They blamed China for the pandemic and associated the virus with all Asians. Today, the Los Angeles Urban League asks everyone to remember the brutal murder of Vincent Chin and the abject failure of our system of justice. We stand stand arm and arm with our Asian brothers and sisters in their fight for civil rights and look forward to strengthening our bonds toward a better future.