On June 23, 1982, 39 years ago, Vincent Chin, a 27 year old Chinese American man, was murdered a few days before his wedding. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, two white men, beat Vincent Chin to death, targeting him because of layoffs in Detroit from competition from the Japanese automobile industry. Ebens and Nitz were convicted of manslaughter, receiving three years probation and a $3000 fine, but no jail time. According to Judge Charles Kaufman who presided over the case, “these weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”
In response to this sentencing that many saw as woefully inadequate, activists and organizers like Helen Zia established the American Citizens for Justice (ACJ). ACJ pursued federal charges and argued that Vincent Chin’s death should be treated as a violation of his civil rights. They rallied with other activists of color as protests demanding justice for Chin erupted across the US. Reverend Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, and other Black civil rights activists contributed greatly to raising the profile of Chin’s case and supporting Asian Americans’ calls for justice. Inter-community support eventually led to the establishment of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a coalition advocating for the advancement of people of color.
Numerous other organizations advocating for Asian Americans emerged in the wake of this movement, including many that are still organizing today. CAAAV: Organizing Asian Committees, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA’s predecessor), and Michigan Asian Student Association are just a few of the organizations that got their start during this pivotal time.
Due to tireless advocacy from Vincent Chin’s mother Lily Chin, Helen Zia, and thousands of other activists, Vincent Chin’s death was recognized as a civil rights issue — marking the first time existing civil rights laws were successfully applied to Asian Americans.
To the white men who attacked him, it didn’t matter that Vincent Chin was not Japanese, that he was Chinese, or that he was American. Ebens and Nitz unleashed their anger on someone who looked East Asian; they exemplified the homogenization of Asian American communities as targets of violence and scapegoats for the frustrations of bigoted people. The figure of an East Asian man was that of the perpetual foreigner and the outside threat. In the 1980’s the threat was that of competition with the Japanese automobile industry.
Today, that threat manifests in the form of the COVID-19 virus and Islamophobia. With the pandemic came racist and xenophobic rhetoric like “China virus” that put a target on the backs of Asian Americans assumed to be Chinese. After 9/11, Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities have been routinely surveilled and harassed. With the most vulnerable members of our communities discriminated against and attacked, the pandemic has revealed that the white supremacy that pits us against Black and Brown communities is the same system that has never stopped seeing us as perpetual foreigners and diseased threats.
But the legacy of the struggle for justice for Vincent Chin is still alive, and the lessons from nearly 40 years ago are still relevant today.
The recent Stop Asian Hate movement emerged in response to attacks on Asian Americans during the pandemic, and AA & NHPI groups have called for solutions not only to interpersonal violence but structural discrimination as well. Stopping Asian Hate means combatting the Islamophobia that proliferated since 9/11, ending the deportation of Southeast Asian American refugees, addressing the health disparities that have made Pacific Islanders one of the hardest hit communities by COVID-19, affirming the rights of LGBT AAPIs, protecting AAPI workers, defending affirmative action, and much more.
Activism through solidarity has grown stronger roots too. Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders took to the streets in solidarity with Black communities after George Floyd’s murder. Black and Asian communities gathered across the country to address the white supremacist origin of anti-Asian violence and challenge narrative of anti-Blackness which permeated hate crime news coverage. The Black Bay Area organized a fundraising campaign for victims of Asian hate crimes, Asians4BlackLives amplifies Black activism within the Asian community, and Letters for Black Lives promote intergenerational Asian support for the Black community.
Cross-racial solidarity doesn’t stop there: Indigenous people fought alongside Black Lives Matter to dismantle state-led violence, Sikh Americans regularly engage in interfaith activism to unite with other targeted faith groups, and civil rights and minority rights organizations advocated for the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, which was passed earlier in May. A threat to one community is a threat to any community anywhere.
Vincent Chin’s advocates called for expanded federal hate crime legislation and the protection of the civil rights of Asian Americans. Today, Asian American organizations continue fighting for our civil rights, most notably through the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. But our strength goes beyond legislative wins — and it must. Among our greatest achievements is the strength of our communities — from the movement that marked a turning point in Asian American civil rights history and birthed many iconic community organizations to the current movement to #StopAsianHate led by grassroots organizations calling for community investment and transformative solutions.
When we see spikes of violence rise against Asian American communities, it’s followed by urgency. We see attention to our communities grow rapidly. Spikes in news coverage, and an influx of followers, subscriptions, and donations. It warms our hearts to see such an outpouring of support from so many. Yet, we can’t help thinking of the ways our communities needed to be heard before the tragedies of Vincent Chin, Atlanta, Indianapolis all struck.
We refer to these high profile instances of violence as boiling points because we know Asian Americans to be at risk of other insidious, subtler forms of systemic inequity, even before our communities are thrust into the national spotlight. It’s of the utmost importance that we name the distinction between interpersonal and systemic violence against Asian Americans. The murder of Vincent Chin and the attacks against Asians and Asian Americans are acts of interpersonal violence that only happened after systemic issues of xenophobia, Sinophobia, and Islamophobia went untreated.
Even before the turmoil brought on by the pandemic, Asian American communities were, and still are, facing systemic violence in the forms of deportations, policing, Islamophobia, income inequality, and much more. Pacific Islander communities are grappling with harmful health disparities, military occupation of their homelands, and further erasure from their homogenization with Asian Americans. Now, more than ever, we are in need of a sustained movement that not only helps us heal after we experience violence, but addresses and prevents it at the root. We need the urgency that happens after a tragedy to be present before it even occurs.
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