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Chinese American Vincent Chin, 27, is beaten in the head with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit on June 19, 1982. Chin died in a hospital four days later, on June 23.
During his bachelor party at a club on the night of June 19, Chin and three friends were signaled out by Ronald Ebens, 43, and Michael Nitz, 23, his stepson, according to NBC News, who, witnesses said, blamed the men for being out of work because of car imports from Japan. Following a fight, Ebens and Nitz searched for the group, finding them at a McDonald's, where Ebens used a baseball bat to smash Chin in the head while Nitz held him down.
Convicted of manslaughter in a plea deal, Ebens and Nitz were sentenced to three years probation and a $3,000 fine with no jail time. The verdict lead to outrage and protests in the Asian American community. Kin Yee, the president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council, called the sentence "a license to kill for $3,000, provided you have a steady job or are a student and the victim is Chinese,'' according to The New York Times.
Ebens was later found guilty in a civil rights trial (Nitz was acquitted), but the verdict was overturned on appeal. In a second civil rights trial in 1987, Ebens was again found not guilty. In a 1987 civil suit, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million and Nitz was ordered to pay $50,000 to Chin's estate. While Nitz paid the amount, Ebens' share was left unpaid.
READ MORE: How the 1982 Murder of Vincent Chin Ignited a Push for Asian American Rights
Episode 5, Lesson 1: The Impact of the Vincent Chin Case
Asian Americans is a production of WETA Washington, DC and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) for PBS, in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Flash Cuts and Tajima-Peña Productions. The series executive producers are Jeff Bieber for WETA Stephen Gong and Donald Young for CAAM Sally Jo Fifer for ITVS and Jean Tsien. The series producer is Renee Tajima-Peña. The executive in charge of production is Eurie Chung. The episode producers are S. Leo Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir and Grace Lee. The consulting producer is Mark Jonathan Harris.
Major funding for Asian Americans is provided by Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Ford Foundation/JustFilms National Endowment for the Humanities The Freeman Foundation The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation of New York Kay Family Foundation Long Family Foundation Spring Wang and California Humanities.
Lesson plans have been developed between WETA and engagement and education partner Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ). Stewart Kwoh is the founder of AAAJ and Patricia Kwoh is the project director for education curriculum on behalf of AAAJ. Amy Labenski and Stefanie Malone managed the education and engagement on behalf of WETA.
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Articles Vincent Chin’s Story Needs to be Told to Every Asian-American
You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Vincent Chin. You’d also be forgiven if you’re Asian and don’t believe that racism happens either. Those two sentences are co-related. So many of us don’t know much about our own history and it will continue to happen until we begin conversations with stories like Vincent Chin.
Vincent’s mother and family, heartbroken by the death of a young man with a bright future. Vincent was murdered by two white men thinking he was Japanese.
Thirty-eight years ago, Vincent Chin was murdered. It happened in Michigan during the collapse of the American auto industry, during the rise of the Japanese car market. Vincent was celebrating his bachelor’s party with some friends at a strip club. Two white guys started chasing and attacking him because they thought he was Japanese. They caught up to him and beat him within an inch of life. He was declared dead four days later in a hospital and the two killers were made to pay a fine of $3000 each with minimal jail time. In other words, they paid a $3000 fee for a license to murder.
We only hear about Vincent Chin today because his story briefly exploded nationally and there was a documentary about him that won an Academy Award. Then, for almost three decades his story was forgotten until social media revitalized it each year on June 19th, the anniversary of his death. Perhaps it’s poetic it coincides with Juneteenth, a day nationally celebrated for the emancipation of black slaves. Commemorative days like Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Day is often mistaken to be about just black history, but in a bigger picture they’re a reminder that a racist system and culture in our country exists. We can’t just ignore it away.
There’ve been tons of Vincent Chins in America. Some killed by whites, some killed by blacks. We do them no justice when we bury them in our memories and don’t fight for Asian-American studies in our schools. Too many Asian-Americans grow up knowledgeable in mathematics, English and general history, but most can’t name even one, two or three historical Asian-American figures or incidents other than the Japanese internment camps or Bruce Lee. We can’t blame other races for this ignorance we should blame ourselves.
The story of Vincent Chin should always be taught and passed on for every generation of Asian-American. Racism is real and this is one of many buried stories.
I get peeved when our community gets irritated by the black, Latino and Native American communities for constantly revisiting their own histories. On the contrary, Asians should follow their blueprints our unique tragedy as a people is that we have no knowledge of our roots and an established identity. Yes, we aren’t as poor, we aren’t as held back, but we are struggling in a equal, yet different horror from an oppressive racial system: we are soulless.
Vincent Chin are two words that should intrigue us to keep tugging on its strings. The more we pull at the Vincent Chins, the more we uncover other Vincent Chins until we realize the perfect Model Minority support that we stand on is actually over a mass yellow grave. If you’re Asian and you’re not mad or you’re believing you won’t be the next victim of a hate crime, I got to say, to believe that in the middle of a pandemic where a lot of people blame yellow skin, that’s either a very brave attitude, or a very ignorant one. We can no longer accept Model Minority glorification in our communities.
Spread the word about Vincent Chin. If you’re an Asian parent, teach these things to your older kids, research and read about Asian-American history. Don’t just teach that doing well in school and working hard is all they need, because it gives children the false idea of a fair society. Give your loved ones the most important things that so many of us were denied: roots, identity and pride.
Louis Leung is a proud self-published author who enjoys writing novels that revolves around controversial Asian-American themes that normally wouldn't be accepted by mainstream publishing.
The Terrible Murder of Vincent Chin
“The killing of Vincent Chin taught us that any Asian American can be the victim of racial intolerance, at any time and any place.”
— Roland Hwang
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin and three friends celebrated his bachelor party at a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan. Hours later, he was beaten to death with a baseball bat.
The U.S. auto industry in the early 1980s was in a free-fall. Japa n ese imports had become all-the-rage, and cars built by the U.S. “Big Three” were struggling. Detroit, as the automobile production hub of the country, was hit the hardest. Plants were forced to shut down, and hard-working people were out of a job. Frustration from a recession spilled over countrywide, and anti-Asian sentiment ran high.
Chin, a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese-American man and engineer for a local automotive supplier, had found the love of his life — the woman he wanted to be with for the rest of his days. As is tradition, there was, but one thing left to do before getting married — to have a bachelor party. On July 19, 1982, only days before his wedding, he and his friends did just that.
The four men met for a few drinks before making their way — with a bottle of vodka in tow — to the Fancy Pants Lounge in Highland Park. Their destination, which had nude dancers, didn’t serve alcohol. They made the most of their time when they got there, sneaking vodka into their drinks and throwing money at the strippers.
Then in a moment, everything suddenly changed.
Roger Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, a supervisor with the Chrysler company and laid off auto-worker, were watching Chin’s table from across the strippers’ runway. They were angry that dancers flocked around Chin. According to witness testimony, Ebens yelled, “It’s because of you m– f–ers that we’re out of work.”
Chin refused to look the other way. He yelled back at the two men, telling them he was Chinese, not Japanese, and had nothing to do with their loss of work. Ebens and Nitz didn’t stop, though, and Chin climbed over the stage to confront the men. When he reached them, Ebens attempted to diffuse the situation he’d started. Chin, not interested in what he had to say, punched him.
Ebens’ son-in-law jumped in, and a fight broke out between the three men. At some point in the scuffle, a chair was swung and hit Nitz in the head. Bouncers separated the three, sending Ebens and Nitz to the back and kicking Chin and his group out of the club.
The groups met up again outside, and Chin called Nitz “chickens–t,” in retaliation, Ebens went to the trunk of his car and grabbed a Louisville Slugger bat.
Chin and his friends ran away.
Ebens and Nitz could have let it go, but they chose not to. They decided to go looking for Chin and his group -– after all, they couldn’t have gotten far. The men hopped in Nitz’s Plymouth Horizon and set out to find the man they’d fought with earlier.
After driving around the area for twenty or thirty minutes looking, they saw Chin sitting on a railroad tie outside of a nearby McDonald’s. Nitz pulled into the lot. As he was stopping the car, a furious Ebens — bat in hand — jumped out to chase after Chin. The startled man saw him and began to run away.
Nitz, who’d joined the chase, caught him within a few seconds. He held him in place while Ebens reared back and swung the bat into Chin’s legs.
Chin screamed in agony as he crumpled to the ground. A second swing of the bat hit him in the chest, breaking multiple ribs. A third cracked Chin in the head, splitting his skull open. The barrage of blows didn’t stop after Chin lost consciousness.
The people inside the McDonald’s, including two off-duty police officers, saw the bat-wielding Ebens continue to hit the defenseless Chin while he lay on the ground. The officers rushed outside to force Ebens to drop his weapon.
In later testimony, one of the officers noted that Ebens was beating Chin with the bat like he was trying to hit a home run.
Ebens and Nitz were taken to the police station but released without being charged. Vincent Chin was in a coma for four days. On June 23, 1982, he succumbed to his injuries. His attackers were both charged with second-degree murder.
On March 16, 1983, the two men appeared in court. After taking plea bargains, Ebens and Nitz were convicted of manslaughter for killing Vincent Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman, later stating that “[t]hese weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” sentenced them each to three years probation and a $3000 fine. To the shock of everyone — including the defendants — neither man would spend a day in prison.
Asian-American community members were outraged. They felt that Judge Kaufman, with his ridiculous ruling, had done nothing more than given people a license to kill people that looked like them for $3000.
The death of Vincent Chin, and the miscarriage of justice that followed, became impetuous for lasting change. It was a wake-up call, a realization that their lives — their heritage mattered. A divergent group of people that had been marginalized for years rose together to push for justice and equality — both justice for Vincent Chin and equality for themselves.
The American Citizens for Justice was soon formed. After some initial push back, the group successfully petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Chin’s murder as a civil rights violation. A second trial took place in 1984. Nitz was acquitted, but Edens was sentenced to serve twenty-five years in prison.
Roger Edens appealed the verdict in 1986, was granted a new trial. He was found not guilty of violating Vincent Chin’s rights.
The parties of a subsequent civil suit settled out of court in 1987. Nitz agreed to pay $50,000 and Ebens 1.5 million dollars. The latter has yet to pay a dime, and with interest, now owes the Chin Estate more than 8 million dollars.
Chin was born on May 18, 1955, in Guangdong province, Mainland China. He was the only child of Bing Hing "David" Chin (a.k.a. C.W. Hing) and Lily Chin (née Yee).  His father earned the right to bring a Chinese bride into the United States through his service in World War II. After Lily suffered a miscarriage in 1949 and was unable to have children, the couple adopted Vincent from a Chinese orphanage in 1961.  
Throughout most of the 1960s, Chin grew up in Highland Park. In 1971, after the elderly Hing was mugged, the family moved to Oak Park, Michigan. Vincent Chin graduated from Oak Park High School in 1973, going on to study at Control Data Institute. At the time of his death, he was employed as an industrial draftsman at Efficient Engineering, an automotive supplier, and working weekends as a waiter at the former Golden Star restaurant in Ferndale, Michigan.   He was engaged, and the wedding date set for June 28, 1982. 
The fight which would lead to the killing of Vincent Chin started at The Fancy Pants Club, when Chin took umbrage at a remark that Ebens made to a stripper who had just finished dancing at Chin's table (Chin was having a bachelor party, as he was to be married eight days later). According to an interview by Michael Moore for the Detroit Free Press, Ebens told the stripper, "Don't pay any attention to those little fuckers, they wouldn't know a good dancer if they'd seen one." 
Ebens claimed that Chin walked over to Ebens and Michael Nitz and threw a punch at Ebens' jaw without provocation, although witnesses at the ensuing trial testified that Ebens also got up and said, "It's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work,"  referring to the Japanese auto industry, particularly Chrysler's increased sales of captively-imported Mitsubishi models rebadged and sold under the Dodge and now-defunct Plymouth brands, and Nitz's layoff from Chrysler in 1979, despite the fact that Chin was of Chinese descent, not Japanese. It is disputed whether Ebens uttered other racial slurs. 
The fight escalated as Nitz shoved Chin in defense of his stepfather, and Chin countered. At the end of the scuffle, both Ebens and Nitz were sprawled on the floor, with Nitz suffering a cut on his head from a thrown chair. Chin and his friends left the room, while a bouncer led Ebens and Nitz to the restroom to clean up the wound.
While they were there, Robert Siroskey, one of Chin's friends, came back inside to use the restroom. He apologized for the group, stating that Chin had a few drinks because of his bachelor's party. Ebens and Nitz had also been drinking that night, although not at the club, which did not serve alcohol. Jimmy Choi also reentered the club to look for Siroskey.
When Ebens and Nitz left the club, Chin and his friends were still waiting outside for Siroskey. Chin challenged Ebens and Nitz to continue the fight in the parking lot,  at which point Ebens retrieved a baseball bat from Nitz' car and chased Chin and Choi out of the parking lot.
Ebens and Nitz searched the neighborhood for 20 to 30 minutes and even paid another man 20 dollars to help look for Chin, before finding him at a McDonald's restaurant. Chin tried to escape, but was held by Nitz while Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Chin with a baseball bat until Chin's head cracked open. A policeman who witnessed the beating said that Ebens was swinging the bat like he was swinging “for a home run.”  He was immediately rushed to Henry Ford Hospital. Chin was unconscious when he arrived he never regained consciousness and died on June 23, 1982, after being in a coma for four days.  Ebens was arrested for the initial assault.  After Vincent Chin's death, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were charged with second-degree murder.
Inaction by the government and advocacy groups Edit
At the time, government officials, politicians, and several prominent legal organizations generally dismissed the theory that civil rights laws should be applied to the beating of Vincent Chin. The Detroit chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild did not consider Chin's killing a violation of his civil rights. 
At first, a new group which named itself American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was the only group which lent its support to the theory that existing civil rights laws should be applied to Asian Americans. Eventually, the national body of the National Lawyers Guild endorsed its efforts. 
State criminal charges Edit
Ebens was arrested and taken into custody at the scene of the crime by two off-duty police officers who had witnessed the beating.  Ebens and Nitz were convicted in a county court by Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman of manslaughter, after a plea bargain brought the charges down from second-degree murder. They served no jail time and were given three years' probation, fined $3,000, and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. In a response letter to protests from American Citizens for Justice, Kaufman said, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail. You don't make the punishment fit the crime you make the punishment fit the criminal." 
Federal civil rights charges Edit
The verdict angered the Asian American communities in the Detroit area and around the country.  Journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Liza Chan (traditional Chinese: 陳綽薇 simplified Chinese: 陈绰薇 pinyin: Chén Chuòwēi ) led the fight for federal charges,  which resulted in the two killers being accused of two counts of violating Chin's civil rights, under section 245 of title 18 of the United States Code.  For these charges, it was not enough that Ebens had injured Chin, but that "a substantial motivating factor for the defendants' actions was Mr. Chin's race, color, or national origin, and because Mr. Chin had been enjoying a place of entertainment which serves the public."  Because of possible mitigating factors that could lead to reasonable doubt, such as intoxication leading to the defendant's inability to form the specific intent,  the prosecution merely proving the evidence of uttered racial slurs would not, in itself, be sufficient for conviction.  In addition, the defense found Racine Colwell, the witness who overheard the "It's because of you motherfuckers we're out of work" remark, to have received some clemency on a jail sentence for a prostitution charge, which suggested that the government might have tried to cut a deal for her testimony. 
The 1984 federal civil rights case against the men found Ebens guilty of the second count and sentenced him to 25 years in prison Nitz was acquitted of both counts. After an appeal, Ebens' conviction was overturned in 1986—a federal appeals court found that an attorney had improperly coached prosecution witnesses. 
After a retrial that was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, due to the publicity the case had received in Detroit, a jury cleared Ebens of all charges in 1987. 
Civil suits Edit
A civil suit for the unlawful death of Vincent Chin was settled out of court on March 23, 1987. Michael Nitz was ordered to pay $50,000. Ronald Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million, at $200/month for the first two years and 25% of his income or $200/month thereafter, whichever was greater. This represented the projected loss of income from Vincent Chin's engineering position, as well as Lily Chin's loss of Vincent's services as laborer and driver. However, the estate of Vincent Chin would not be allowed to garnish social security, disability, or Ebens' pension from Chrysler, nor could the estate place a lien on Ebens' house. 
In November 1989, Ebens reappeared in court for a creditor's hearing, where he detailed his finances and reportedly pledged to make good on his debt to the Chin estate.  However, in 1997,  the Chin estate was forced to renew the civil suit, as it was allowed to do every ten years.  With accrued interest and other charges, the adjusted total became $4,683,653.89.  Ebens sought in 2015 to have the resulting lien against his house vacated. 
Chin was interred in Detroit's Forest Lawn Cemetery. 
In September 1987, Chin's mother, Lily Chin, moved from Oak Park back to her hometown of Guangzhou, China, in order to avoid being reminded of the tragedy. She returned to the United States for medical treatment in late 2001 and died on June 9, 2002. Prior to her death, Lily Chin established a scholarship in Vincent's memory, to be administered by American Citizens for Justice. 
The attack was considered a hate crime by many,  but it predated the passage of hate crime laws in the United States. After Chin's murder was raised during a 1998 House of Representatives hearing on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1997, Congressman John Conyers mistook Chin to be Japanese-American and denied that the injustices of Chin's case were racial in nature. Rather, Conyers suggested that they were political due to the case's connection to the automobile industry and the "thinking about exports and imports."  [ non-primary source needed ]
Chin's case has been cited by some Asian Americans in support of the idea that they are considered "perpetual foreigners" in contrast to "real" Americans who are considered full citizens.    Lily Chin stated: "What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese. If two Chinese killed a white person, they must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives. Something is wrong with this country." 
In 2010, the city of Ferndale, Michigan, erected a legal milestone marker at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and 9 Mile Road that commemorates the killing of Chin. 
New YA book details how Vincent Chin's killing galvanized Asian American activism
In 1982, a Chinese American engineer named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by two white autoworkers. Japan’s dominance over the auto industry had spurred virulent anti-Asian racism in the U.S., and the men, mistaking Chin to be Japanese, blamed him for stealing their jobs.
“It’s because of you little motherf------ that we’re out of work,” they reportedly told him before bashing his skull with a baseball bat. Chin, 27, was buried a day after what should have been his wedding day.
The killing became the most infamous hate crime in Asian American history. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were initially charged with second-degree murder but eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Their punishment — probation and a $3,000 fine — sparked protests across the country and united people from different ethnic groups, catalyzing what became the contemporary Asian American movement. The ensuing trial marked the first time federal hate crime laws were used in a case involving a victim of Asian descent.
In the four decades since, Chin’s name has drifted in and out of mainstream consciousness, often resurfacing following a wave of anti-Asian violence. Now, he’s the subject of a forthcoming young adult nonfiction book by TV writer, author and former journalist Paula Yoo.
“From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement,” which will be published April 20, dives deep into the event that changed how a generation of Asian Americans saw themselves and their place in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. Over the past two years, Yoo interviewed Chin’s surviving family members and friends, the activists who worked on his case, the police officer who witnessed his death, defense attorneys and one of the men who killed him. She examined 2,500 pages of court documents and protest relics, including flyers from the 1983 rallies that propelled the Department of Justice to take on the case.
Yoo spoke with NBC Asian America about the enduring legacy of Chin’s death and its relevance today in yet another era defined by anti-Asian hate. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC Asian America: When did you first hear about Vincent Chin, and what made you want to write a book about him?
Paula Yoo: The first time I heard about him was seven or eight years after he died, when I watched “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” the Academy Award-nominated documentary by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña. I was in college then, and he’s been with me ever since.
Eventually, I moved to L.A. and became a TV and book writer. I’ve been pitching Vincent Chin as a movie for about the past 15 years. I remember everybody telling me, “Paula, that’s a great idea, but it’s a very niche-oriented story. We don’t really think a lot of people are going to see it.” (The only people who knew him were Asian American college students and activists.) I got busy with my other book and my TV job. So it was always a passion project in the back of my mind.
Then in 2016, after Donald Trump became president, there was a rise in anti-Asian racism, especially on social media. That’s when Vincent Chin’s name started popping up again. So in 2018, I dusted off my half-finished screenplay and showed it to my book agent, who said it should be a YA nonfiction book. So I wrote a book proposal, and that started the whole journey.
The book starts from the perspective of Jarod Lew, the son of Vickie Wong, Chin’s fiancée. Why make him the central character of a story that happened years before he was born?
Yoo: My book is told in two different timelines: the Vincent Chin timeline and the present-day timeline. I met Lew, who’s an accomplished photojournalist, through the late Corky Lee, the “unofficial Asian American photographer laureate.” He’s the emotional spine of the book, which opens with him finding out that his mom was engaged to Vincent Chin. That was in 2012, when he was 25. The book is about his journey to unearth this secret family history and finally trying to gather up the courage to talk to his mom about one of the worst things that happened in her life — all the while knowing that he would not be alive today if Vincent Chin were alive.
When we drove by Vincent Chin’s original childhood home [in Detroit], Jarod flipped out. He said that after college, he rented the house just down the street. When we went to the restaurant Vincent used to work at, Jarod flipped out again and said he had his birthday there. It was almost if Vincent was reaching out to us. It was haunting and made us very solemnly aware of the responsibility we had in telling this story.
Your book is being published at a time when public awareness of this story is at the highest it’s ever been — due largely to the rise in anti-Asian violence. A new podcast, film and TV show are in development. How has this buzz affected the reception of your book?
Yoo: When the book was in the copy-editing stage in May of 2020, my editor called and suggested that I write an afterword about how Vincent Chin’s case has relevance to today. Anti-Asian sentiment in the 1980s — over Japanese import cars competing against the American auto industry — is happening again with the Covid-19 pandemic.
People were talking about Vincent Chin during the whole “China virus” controversy, but after Atlanta, the lid blew off. I’ve gotten about four hours of sleep a night since March 16. Suddenly, hundreds of people are following me on Twitter. I've been doing interviews all the time. Although I’m honored by the attention this book is getting, and the importance of Vincent Chin’s story getting heard, I’m also devastated and heartbroken that it had to take eight people getting killed — and the more than 3,800 hate incidents recorded — for this to happen.
Do you see any parallels between what happened then to what’s happening now?
Yoo: In 1983, Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced Ebens and Nitz to three years' probation with a $3,000 fine. He famously declared, “These weren't the kind of men you send to jail.” Back then nobody knew about the microaggressions, the jokes in poor taste, that can add up to a lifetime of trauma. A lot of Americans, especially white Americans, thought you could only be racist if you had a KKK robe.
Last month in Atlanta, when an authority figure said the killer was just having “a bad day,” all I can think about was Judge Kaufman’s words. To hear another officer of law saying this, almost 40 years later, made me so angry. The family members, friends, lawyers and almost everyone else I interviewed cried [when they spoke to me]. Not only have they had a lifetime of trauma to deal with, they now also have to deal with the fact that we don’t count in the discussion of racism, even when we’re killed. That breaks my heart.
Vincent’s killing was sort of this watershed moment for the AAPI community. What’s the lasting cultural and legal legacy of his death?
Yoo: This book isn’t just about racism and brutal crime. It’s also about positive contributions and how the Asian American movement really started taking off. Vincent Chin’s death inspired a brand-new generation of Asian American activists, lawyers, journalists, politicians and writers — people who wanted to make sure that we weren’t erased from American history.
In the 1980s, Asians were defined by the country of their heritage. The term “Asian American” only existed on college campuses and for activists. When the Vincent Chin sentencing happened, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese — everybody got together under one roof and said, “This is wrong. We have to band together and fight back.” People started identifying it as a political identity. A lot of Asian American activist groups formed and still exist today. Vincent Chin is the reason “Asian American” became a mainstream term.
In addition to his symbolic legacy against hate, Chin also had a tangible effect on the law. He’s the reason that, at manslaughter hearings in Michigan, victims' families can now deliver victim impact statements to the judge.
What surprised you while writing this book?
Yoo: The fact that everyone still cried talking to me. People like Helen Zia, Roland Hwang and Jim Shimoura — the baby boomer activists who founded the civil rights group American Citizens for Justice after Chin’s murder — were reliving something that happened 40 years ago as if it had happened yesterday. It made me realize the heaviness of the responsibility I had to make sure their voices were heard.
As a journalist, one of the hardest things I had to do was compartmentalize my feelings and my theories about this case to be fair to both sides. I have a chapter in my book about the defense attorneys. I met Ebens in his house for an off-the-record interview that I can’t talk about. I cried in my car afterward because it was a very disturbing, profound and emotional event for me.
Do I feel compassion for both sides after meeting him? Of course I do. Everyone’s life was ruined. Do I feel that Ebens and Nitz should have gone to jail? Of course I do. I can have compassion and also believe they got away with something they shouldn’t have. We have to always remember that Vincent Chin was dead, and he shouldn’t be.
Why market this book to young adults?
Yoo: We don’t teach Asian American history in depth for children and high school students. Growing up, I wasn’t taught anything. In my 20s, I would go to that tiny Asian bookshelf at Barnes and Noble and read every book there. I had to teach myself about our history. That’s a huge issue in itself that leads to ignorance and racism. One in 4 Asian American teens have reported being verbally or physically bullied because of the pandemic. I wrote this book for everyone, but I’m especially grateful that it can be taught in schools. This should be part of a social studies class.
America has an “Asian American amnesia” problem. We’ve always been fighting back, but no one’s listening because our history has been erased. No one knows about our contributions to this country. What’s changing is social media and the fact that people can record stuff on their phones. I think we’re seeing another seminal moment in AAPI history happening right now.
Voices: Who Is Vincent Chin?
On the night of June 19, 1982, Chin and three friends went to a strip club just outside Detroit. It was meant to be a celebratory bachelor party for Chin, but the night quickly turned ugly. At the Fancy Pants club in Highland Park, two white patrons confronted Chin in the club, pushing him and brandishing a chair. The two white men, workers in an auto industry struggling to compete with thriving Japanese competitors, apparently mistook Chin to be Japanese American and decided to vent their anger. “It’s because of you little motherf------ that we’re out of work!” one witness later recalled one of the men shouted.
The altercation spilled into the parking lot, but Chin soon fled when one of the white men pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk. Chin and a friend sought refuge in the bright lights of a McDonald’s parking lot a few blocks away, but the white men — 42-year-old Ronald Ebens, a foreman at a Chrysler plant, and his 23-year-old stepson, Michael Nitz, a college student with a part-time job — found them there, after nearly 30 minutes searching the neighborhood.
An off-duty police officer, working security inside McDonald’s, saw what happened. First, Nitz chased Chin down in the parking lot, tackling him and pinning his arms. Then his stepfather attacked Chin. “Ebens was standing over him with the baseball bat and was just pounding him in the head,” the policeman later recalled. “He hit him four times. Four times. There was blood coming from everywhere. Out of his ears and everywhere.”
He and another off-duty officer then raced to confront Ebens, pistols drawn, shouting at him until he dropped the bat, a 34-inch Louisville Slugger embossed with the autograph of none other than Jackie Robinson. Chin was rushed to a local hospital, but, his skull crushed, he succumbed to his injuries four days later.
The identity of Chin’s killer was never in doubt. But his motives were deliberately occluded.
Despite the eyewitness accounts of three dancers in the club, who relayed the “motherf------” line to the police and added that the white men had used racial slurs, Ebens and Nitz insisted that their actions that night had no racist motivation whatsoever.
The authorities apparently agreed with them. Prosecutors reduced the charges against Ebens and Nitz from second-degree murder to a plea agreement on the lighter charge of manslaughter. Even that lesser charge still carried with it the potential for 15 years’ imprisonment, but that kind of accountability was swept away at the sentencing hearing.
June 19, 1982: Vincent Chin Beaten to Death in Hate Crime
In Detroit, Michigan on June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death in a hate crime by two auto workers who blamed Chin for the massive lay-offs occurring in the auto industry. Before slipping into a coma, Chin’s last words were, “It’s not fair.”
Arrested and released that same night, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were charged with second-degree murder which they plead down to manslaughter. They denied the brutal attack was racially motived and received three year’s probation and a $3,000 fine. The judge, who gave the sentencing offered, the following explanation:
These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. . . You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.
They never served one night in jail. Meanwhile, Chin was buried and what was supposed to have been is wedding day.
A protest in Detroit. Source: Corky Lee/Smithsonian Magazine
As Chris Fan wrote in Hyphen magazine,
But by far the most significant reaction to [the judge’s] decision was the galvanization — indeed, weaponization — of the Asian American community. Its reaction was so powerful, and the coalition it formed so broad-based in terms of class, ethnicity and age group, that commentators have frequently claimed that no coherent Asian American identity truly existed before this moment. Continue reading “Vincent Chin: Some Lessons and Legacies” at Hyphen magazine.
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement (April 2021). The story of Vincent Chin and the movement galvanized by his murder is researched and written for young adults by award-winning children’s book author Paula Yoo. Listen to an interview with Yoo on Fresh Air.
Watch the film Who Killed Vincent Chin? on P.O.V., directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña. As described by DC Asian Pacific American Film:
This Academy-Award nominated film is a powerful statement about racism in working-class America. It relates the stark facts of Vincent Chin’s brutal murder. This tragic story is interwoven with the whole fabric of timely social concerns. It addresses issues such as the failure of our judicial system to value every citizen’s rights equally, the collapse of the automobile industry under pressure from Japanese imports, and the souring of the American dream for the blue collar worker.
Find more resources on Asian American history below.
Asian Americans in the People’s History of the United States
Brief profiles of people and events from Asian American and Pacific Islander people’s history.
American Hate: Survivors Speak Out
Book – Non-fiction. Edited by Arjun Singh Sethi. 2018. 192 pages.
Testimonials from people impacted by hate before and after the 2016 presidential election.
Teaching About Asian Pacific Americans: Effective Activities, Strategies, and Assignments for Classrooms and Communities
Teaching Guide. Edited by Edith Wen-Chu Chen and Glenn Omatsu. 2006.
Comprehensive collection of articles and lessons on Asian Pacific American history.
Teaching Untold Stories During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Article. By Moé Yonamine. If We Knew Our History Series.
Few people know the hidden history of the U.S.-orchestrated Japanese Latin American removal, internment, and deportation during World War II.
Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
Book – Non-fiction. By David H.T. Wong. 2012.
A graphic novel that gives a panoramic but also an intimate look at the Chinese experience in North America.
Remembering 1882: Fighting for Civil Rights in the Shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act
Primary documents, historical background, and more on the Chinese Exclusion Act and the history of Chinese American struggles for civil rights.
May 6, 1882: Chinese Exclusion Act Signed
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was signed which prohibited Chinese immigration.
Sept. 2, 1885: Rock Springs Massacre
White coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, brutally attacked the Chinese workers.
March 31, 1944: Frank S. Emi Interrogated
Frank S. Emi was interrogated about his protest of the draft during Japanese American internment.
Ronald Ebens, the Man Who Killed Vincent Chin, Apologizes 30 Years Later
After 30 years the killer of Vincent Chin told me in an exclusive interview that the murder, known as a hate crime, wasn't about race, and that he doesn't even remember hitting Chin with a baseball bat.
As incredible as that sounds, there is one thing Ronald Ebens is clear about.
Ebens, who was convicted of second-degree murder but spent no time in prison for the act, is sorry for the beating death of Vincent Chin on June 19, 1982, in Detroit -- even though for many Asian Americans, he can't say sorry enough.
For years, Ebens has been allowed to live his life quietly as a free man.
With the arrival this month of the 30th anniversary of the murder -- and after writing about the case for years -- I felt the need to hear Ebens express his sorrow with my own ears, so that I could put the case behind me.
So I called him up, and he talked to me.
On the phone, Ebens, a retired auto worker, said killing Chin was "the only wrong thing I ever done in my life."
Though he received probation and a fine and never served any time for the murder, Ebens says he's prayed many times for forgiveness over the years. His contrition sounded genuine over the phone.
"It's absolutely true, I'm sorry it happened, and if there's any way to undo it, I'd do it," said Ebens, 72. "Nobody feels good about somebody's life being taken, OK? You just never get over it. . Anybody who hurts somebody else, if you're a human being, you're sorry, you know."
Ebens said he'd take back that night "a thousand times" if he could, and that after all these years he can't put the memory out of his mind. "Are you kidding? It changed my whole life," said Ebens. "It's something you never get rid of. When something like that happens, if you're any kind of a person at all, you never get over it. Never."
Ebens' life has indeed changed. As a consequence of the Chin murder, Ebens said he lost his job and his family and has scraped by from one low-wage job to the next to make ends meet. Ultimately, he remarried and sought refuge in Nevada, where he's been retired eight years, owns a home, and lives paycheck to paycheck on Social Security. His current living situation makes recovery of any part of the millions of dollars awarded to Chin's heirs in civil proceedings highly unlikely.
The civil award, with interest, has grown to around $8 million.
"It was ridiculous then it's ridiculous now," Ebens said with defiance.
His life hasn't been easy the last 30 years. But at least he's alive. He watches a lot of TV, he said, like America's Got Talent.
"They've got good judges," he said.
Sort of like the judges he got in his case? Like Judge Charles Kaufman, the Michigan judge who sentenced him to probation without notifying Chin's attorneys, virtually assuring that Ebens would never serve time for the murder?
Ebens didn't want to comment on that.
For all the time he spends in front of the television, Ebens said he has never seen either of the two documentaries that have been made on the case, and he said he made a mistake in speaking to one of the filmmakers. Even for this column, Ebens showed his reluctance to be interviewed.
But he finally consented to let me use all his statements, because I told him I would be fair. I'm not interested in further demonizing Ronald Ebens. I just wanted to hear how he deals with being the killer of Vincent Chin.
For three decades the Chin case has been a driving force that has informed the passion among activists for Asian-American civil rights. Some still feel there was no justice even after the long legal ordeal that included 1) the state murder prosecution, where Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were allowed to plea bargain to second-degree murder, given three years' probation, and fined $3,720 2) the first federal prosecution on civil-rights charges that ended in a 25-year sentence for Ebens 3) the subsequent appeal by Ebens to the Sixth Circuit, which was granted 4) the second federal trial that was moved from Detroit to Cincinnati and ended in Ebens' acquittal.
Add it all up, and it seems a far cry from justice. One man dead. Perps go free. I thought that maybe Ebens could help me understand how he got justice and not Vincent Chin.
I asked him about his side of the story, which was a key dispute in the court testimony about how it all started at the Fancy Pants strip club.
"It should never have happened," said Ebens. "[And] it had nothing to do with the auto industry or Asians or anything else. Never did, never will. I could [not] have cared less about that. That's the biggest fallacy of the whole thing."
That night at the club, after some harsh words were exchanged, Ebens said Chin stood up and came around to the other side of the stage. "He sucker-punched me and knocked me off my chair. That's how it started. I didn't even know he was coming," Ebens said.
Chin's friends testified that Ebens made racial remarks, mistaking Chin for Japanese, and that when Chin and Ebens then got into a shoving match, Ebens threw a chair at him but struck Nitz instead.
But Ebens' assertion that there was no racial animosity or epithets is actually supported by testimony from Chin's friend, Jimmy Choi, who apologized to Ebens for Chin's behavior, which he said included Chin throwing the chair that injured Nitz.
What about the baseball bat and the fact that Ebens and Nitz followed Chin to a nearby McDonald's?
Ebens said that when all parties were asked to leave the strip club, they were out in the street. It's undisputed that Chin egged Ebens to fight on.
"The first thing he said to me is, 'You want to fight some more?'" Ebens recalled. "Five against two is not good odds," said Ebens, who declined to fight.
Later, when Chin and his friends left, Ebens' stepson went to get a baseball bat from his car. (Ironically, it was a Jackie Robinson model.) Ebens said he took it away from Nitz because he didn't want anyone taking it from him and using it on them.
But then Ebens said his anger got the best of him, and he drove with Nitz to find Chin, finally spotting him at the nearby McDonald's.
"That's how it went down," Ebens said. "If he hadn't sucker-punched me in the bar . nothing would have ever happened. They forced the issue. And from there, after the anger built up, that's where things went to hell."
Ebens calls it "the gospel truth."
But he says he's cautious speaking now, because he doesn't want to be seen as shifting the blame. "I'm as much to blame," he admitted with sadness. "I should've been smart enough to just call it a day. After they started to disperse, [it was time to] get in the car and go home."
Regarding what happened at the McDonald's, where the blow that led to Chin's death actually occurred, Ebens' memory is more selective. To this day, he has doubts about having hit Chin with the bat. "I went over that a hundred, maybe 1,000 times in my mind the last 30 years. It doesn't make sense of any kind that I would swing a bat at his head when my stepson is right behind him. That makes no sense at all."
And then he quickly added, almost wistfully, "I don't know what happened."
At another point in the interview, he admitted that his memory may be deficient. "That was really a traumatic thing," he told me about his testimony. "I hardly remember even being on the stand."
He admitted that everyone had too much to drink that night. But he's not claiming innocence.
"No," Ebens said. "I took my shot in court. I pleaded guilty to what I did, regardless of how it occurred or whatever. A kid died, OK? And I feel bad about it. I still do."
Ebens told me he has Asian friends where he lives, though he didn't indicate whether he shares his past with them. When he thinks about Chin, he said no images come to mind.
"It just makes me sick to my stomach, that's all," he said, thinking about all the lives that were wrecked, both Chin's and his own.
By the end of our conversation, Ebens still wasn't sure he wanted me to tell his story. "It will only alienate people," he said. "Why bother? I just want to be left alone and live my life."
But I told him that I wouldn't judge, that I would just listen and use his words. I told him that it was important in the Asian-American community's healing process to hear a little more from him than a one-line, "I'm sorry."
He ultimately agreed. One line doesn't adequately explain another human being's feelings and actions. I told him I would paint a fuller picture.
So now we've heard what Ebens has to say 30 years later. From a phone conversation, I don't know if he's telling me the truth, nor do I know if I'm ready to forgive him, but I heard from him, and now that I have, I can deal with how the justice system failed Vincent Chin and continue to help in the fight to ensure that it never happens again.
For more information, read the pivotal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision, which sent the case back for a new trial. See also Remembering Vincent Chin.
Why Vincent Chin Matters
ON June 23, 1982, in Detroit, a young man named Vincent Chin died. Four nights earlier, he had been enjoying his bachelor party with friends at a local bar when they were accosted by two white men, who blamed them for the success of Japan’s auto industry. “It’s because of you we’re out of work,” they were said to have shouted, adding a word that can’t be printed here. The men bludgeoned Mr. Chin, 27, with a baseball bat until his head cracked open.
The men — a Chrysler plant supervisor named Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz — never denied the acts, but they insisted that the matter was simply a bar brawl that had ended badly for one of the parties. In an agreement with prosecutors, they pleaded to manslaughter (down from second-degree murder) and were sentenced to three years of probation and fined $3,000.
I was a Chinese-American teenager growing up near Detroit then. I remember the haunting photograph of a smiling, fresh-faced Mr. Chin, shown repeatedly in newspapers and on TV, and the tears of his mother, Lily Chin, who lamented that his killers had escaped justice. Mr. Chin was buried on the day he was to have been married.
The killing catalyzed political activity among Asian-Americans — whose numbers had steadily increased since the 1965 overhaul of immigration laws but who then represented only about 1.5 percent of the population — as never before. “Remember Vincent Chin” turned into a rallying cry for the first time, Asian-Americans of every background angrily protested in cities across the country. For all that Asians had been through — racial exclusion, starting with a ban on Chinese migrant labor in 1882 the unconstitutional detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II the legacy of America’s wars in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam — no single episode involving an individual Asian-American had ever had such an effect before. And none has since.
The circumstances of the Chin case were no accident. The early 1980s were, like now, a time of malaise. The unemployment rate was at its highest since World War II inflation was stuck in the double digits “Japan Inc.” threatened to devour not only Detroit manufacturing but also New York real estate. White flight had emptied a great metropolis that once stood for industrial progress. Imported cars became a hated symbol of foreign encroachment.
Spurred by Asian-American activists, federal prosecutors brought civil rights charges against the two assailants in 1983. (The men denied using racial epithets, as some witnesses had reported.) The stepfather, Mr. Ebens, was convicted of violating Mr. Chin’s civil rights and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.Image
The Chin case showed the power of the saying “You all look the same.” An assimilated son of Chinese immigrants somehow came to be identified with Japanese automakers. (That Asian-Americans made up much of the engineering force at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler seems not to have occurred to the attackers.)
“Asian-Americans” — a term that many Asian-Americans themselves do not use — are, of course, more a demographic category than a community arising from shared language, religion, history or culture. Yet for all our diversity, we share an experience of otherness. The fifth-generation Japanese-American from California, the Hmong refugee in Wisconsin, the Indian engineer in Texas, the Korean adoptee in Chicago and the Pakistani taxi driver in New York — all have at times been made to feel alien, sometimes immutably so.
Thirty years after Mr. Chin’s death, hate crimes seem to be a remote threat for Asian-Americans. But it is premature, if tempting, to celebrate progress.
On Tuesday, a Pew Research Center study, “The Rise of Asian-Americans,” reported that Asians overtook Hispanics in 2009 as the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group and now represent 5.8 percent of the population. It reported that Asian-Americans, on the whole, have higher incomes and better educations than whites, blacks or Latinos.
Though the study noted that discrimination, poverty and language barriers still confront refugees, undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable groups, Asian-American advocates for social justice winced. Despite decades of debunking by social scientists and historians, the model minority myth — Asian-Americans as overachieving nerds — persists. The study was based on a rigorous survey, though relying on self-reported attitudes and behaviors is not a fireproof methodology.
But the more important criticism is this: When it comes to race, nuance matters. The Pew findings encourage us to consider how positive attitudes may contribute to socioeconomic success. But history also teaches us that before Asian-Americans were seen as model minorities, we were also perpetual foreigners. Taken together, these perceptions can lead to resentment. And resentment can lead to hate.
Vincent Chin has lived longer in memory than reality. Today China, not Japan, is on the rise. Another recession has come to an uneasy close. Detroit limps along. Asian-Americans, through increasing civic participation, have asserted themselves as members of the body politic and reached some of the highest offices in government, academia and business.
Asian-Americans who have achieved success owe a debt to the agitators who followed the Chin case, often defying their own cultural backgrounds as well as the stereotype of passivity and quiescence. Everyone who cares about the promise of our increasingly diverse nation ought to see in this case the possibility of social change arising from tragic violence.