DETROIT, Mich. — This week marked 40 years since the killing of Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit. His beating death at the hands of two white men, who served no prison time, sparked outrage and a civil rights movement within the Asian-American community.
In the early 1980s, amidst a recession, high inflation and the collapse of the American auto industry, anti-Japanese sentiment was growing.
“People who drove Japanese-made cars on the freeway got shot at. They didn't have to be Asian, Black, white, they got shot out for driving a Japanese-made car,” said author and activist Helen Zia, executor of the Vincent and Lily Chin Estate.
Zia says the murder of 27-year-old Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American engineer in Detroit was a watershed moment.
“Vincent Chin's killing, and his murder, was really a wake-up call to Asian Americans,” she said. “We felt the hate everywhere. It felt unsafe.”
Chin, who was not of Japanese descent, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white men after a fight at a strip club.
Witnesses said the men, American autoworkers, were angry, blaming the loss of American jobs on Japanese imports.
“When the sentence was meted out to be just three years probation, a $3,000 fine, that was the outrage that something required action,” said Roland Hwang, president of American Citizens for Justice.
The light sentencing sparked mass outrage and galvanized a movement for Asian American civil rights.
“It really left us very few options other than trying to go to the federal government for a civil rights prosecution,” said James Shimoura, who was the volunteer attorney for Vincent Chin’s mother Lily at the time.
“It was unprecedented, probably the first time in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice. They took a civil rights case to trial on behalf of an Asian-American,” said Shimoura.
“This was the case that people said, ‘Enough. We need to stand up. This is wrong.’ You cannot kill somebody and get off Scot free,” said Zia.
This week, across the Detroit area and country, people have come together to keep Chin’s memory alive. The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance and Rededication included film screenings, public art and panel discussions.
“Whenever you speak to someone about Asian hate, the first thing they talk about is Vincent Chin, which is like with Emmett Till,” said Shimoura. “The difficulty is that I never thought we'd be seen here in 2022 still talking about it.”
It comes at a time when anti-Asian discrimination and violence is on the rise.
According to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate, between March 2020 and December 2021, they received reports of 10,905 hate incidents against people of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) origin.
“The verbalization of the flu as the ‘China flu, Kung flu,’ that sort of thing. I think that sort of was a calling card to allow people who had that anti-Asian animus to just explode,” said Hwang.
“Today, with the spike of hate that I have to say, many of us believe that this is even worse than the 1980s,” said Zia.
Activists believe remembering Vincent Chin is one way to move forward.
“Whether it's Coeur d'Alene or Buffalo or Atlanta or Indianapolis or any church or synagogue, we're seeing this everywhere. And it's not one group here and one group there, it has to be all of us coming together," Zia said.