This year marks the 40th anniversary of the brutal killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man in Detroit whose murder sparked a reckoning over anti-Asian discrimination and spurred a surge in Asian American activism.
The anniversary comes as Asian Americans in the US face an uptick in violence, driven by the same xenophobia that fueled Chin’s killing. In 1982, Chin was killed by two white men upset about the competition US companies faced from Japanese automakers, who sought to pin the blame on him. Since March 2020, there have been more than 10,900 hate incidents reported to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate, including physical attacks and verbal abuse that put the blame on Asian Americans for the spread of Covid-19.
Other sources have found similar trends. According to the FBI, hate crimes toward Asian Americans increased 76 percent in 2020 compared to the year before, with another report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism finding an even larger jump in many large cities in 2021.
Like with Chin’s killing, recent anti-Asian hate crimes reflect a willingness to conflate individual Asian people and US tensions with Asian countries. As Americans — including politicians — looked for someone to hold responsible for Covid-19, Asian Americans were targeted given the virus’s origins in China. And since the US is now locked in economic competition with China, experts anticipate that anti-Asian sentiment will endure.
“The parallels between Vincent Chin’s murder and what we see today is striking and disturbing,” says John Yang, the executive director of the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “It is frankly what we’ve seen throughout history, that when there are issues involving a foreign nation, there’s a backlash against the Asian American community in the United States.”
What happened to Vincent Chin
That June, Chin was celebrating his bachelor party at a strip club when he first ran into Ebens and Nitz. “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work,” Ebens said, according to a witness to the encounter.
The men got into a physical altercation and were removed from the club as a result. Ebens and Nitz, however, followed Chin to a different location, beating him with a baseball bat and ultimately cracking his skull. Four days later, Chin died from the injuries he had sustained.
The attack took place as the US was facing stiff economic competition from Japan, particularly when it came to auto manufacturing, fueling tensions between the two countries. Ebens and Nitz apparently assumed that Chin was Japanese and blamed him for the layoffs and closures US companies were experiencing.
Initially, Chin’s killing was treated as a random act of violence, according to activist and journalist Helen Zia. It wasn’t until after Ebens and Nitz took a second-degree manslaughter plea deal, and were sentenced to three years of probation and a $3,000 fine, that Chin’s death prompted a massive outcry. Neither received any jail time, despite the maximum 15-year sentence associated with the offense. They “weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” the judge said.
“In March of 1983, when the judge sentenced the two white killers to probation, that triggered the alarm,” says Zia. “You can kill an Asian American and get off scot-free? That made everyone think, well, that could be my brother, my cousin, my father.”
After the verdict was announced, Asian Americans around the country mobilized to protest and raise awareness about the case, calling on the Justice Department to investigate the killing as a civil rights violation. This marked a huge inflection point for pan-Asian activism, as people of different ethnic groups came together to demonstrate as part of a broader Asian American movement.
“If you think about how Asian Americans were organized before his murder, we often saw ourself in our own ethnicities, but after his murder we recognized even more so that we had to come together as a community,” says Yang. These efforts built on the work of activists in the 1960s, who first embraced the term “Asian American” as they worked with Black Americans and Latino Americans to push for ethnic studies on college campuses.
The protests following Chin’s death were so effective that the DOJ did in fact investigate the attack as a civil rights violation, marking the first time discrimination against an Asian American person was treated as a civil rights offense. A district court judge wound up sentencing Ebens to 25 years in jail, though he was later cleared of charges on appeal. Both Ebens and Nitz also agreed to separate civil settlements, which required Nitz to pay $50,000 to the Chin estate and Ebens to pay $1.5 million. (Nitz has completed the payment, while Ebens has not.)
The success of the protests, Zia notes, came about in part because of the work led by Black activists during the civil rights movement, which forced conversations about racial justice and discrimination. Similarly, the current Asian American protest movement draws on the blueprint organizers established during the Chin demonstrations and in the years since.
There’s a lot that hasn’t changed
Although 40 years have passed since Chin’s murder, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed.
Today, the “forever foreigner” stereotype — the idea that Asian people aren’t truly Americans — is still pervasive, and a major reason Asian people are targeted when conflicts arise with Asian countries.
This trope is deeply rooted in US history and has been activated many times, including when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II, when South Asian Americans and Arab Americans were racially profiled in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and when the coronavirus’s origins in China were weaponized against those perceived to be East Asian and Southeast Asian.
In addition to Chin’s murder, there have been numerous instances of attacks and discrimination toward Asian Americans motivated by this idea. In 1981, members of the Ku Klux Klan threatened Vietnamese refugees in Texas, describing them as an extension of the enemy the US military was fighting in Asia. In 1999, scientist Wen Ho Lee was arrested due to concerns that he was a Chinese spy, though the government ultimately had to drop most charges because it didn’t have sufficient grounds for its case. In 2003, Avtar Singh, a Sikh immigrant and Phoenix truck driver, was shot by a bystander who told him to “go back to where you belong.”
Today’s surge of anti-Asian violence has its roots in the “forever foreigner” stereotype as well, and has been spurred by anti-China backlash during the pandemic as well as geopolitical trade conflicts. The latter issue is of particular concern: As US economic competition with China grows, many activists and experts fear that xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment will only worsen.
These concerns are tied to how political leaders of both parties have often talked about China, including the framing of the country as an “existential threat” and descriptions of any type of economic conflict as “us versus them.” For example, activists have flagged prior comments made by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has said that the challenges posed by China are a “whole of society” problem, a statement that seemed to imply that Chinese people overall were broadly to blame for national security threats. Many lawmakers also use generalizations, casting “China” and “the Chinese” as a monolithic enemy, rather than calling out the Chinese government in particular.
There are worries that such aggressive and sweeping language will fuel the same xenophobia that’s triggered anti-Asian violence — including Chin’s murder — in the past. And it’s led some groups, like the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, to release recommendations for how policymakers can talk about geopolitical tension and put the focus on the Chinese government, rather than Chinese people.
“It is an existential threat to Asian Americans,” says Zia. “This constant theme that when America is having trouble, it becomes a convenient pivot to blame an outside threat.”
A path forward
Chin’s murder was a huge turning point for Asian American activism, underscoring the group’s political power and prompting the creation of more pan-Asian advocacy groups like American Citizens for Justice and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
That infrastructure and energy has carried on to this day, as #StopAsianHate protests erupted around the country in 2021, once again spurred by violence, including a series of brutal attacks on Asian American elders and a mass shooting in Georgia that killed six Asian women.
The shooting in particular spurred significant action. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of people participated in rallies, trainings, and crowdfunding efforts that sought to provide redress for victims or push back on anti-Asian violence. Now, as in the wake of Chin’s killing, activists are looking for ways to combat longstanding biases.
Part of that has involved greater documentation, like Stop AAPI Hate’s reports on violent incidents. The goal of this data gathering has been to provide visibility, support, and financial compensation for victims.
“That’s a reason we started Stop AAPI Hate. We did not want this to be minimized, we wanted to have the numbers. We didn’t want there to be denialism,” Cynthia Choi, the co-director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, previously told Vox. Having this data to point to has allowed activists to emphasize the scale of the problem and its ubiquitous nature. And that’s led to a growing belief among Americans of all backgrounds that Asian Americans face significant discrimination.
There’s also been an outpouring of activism that’s further strengthened the pan-Asian American movement developed in the 1980s: Recent attacks have activated a new generation of activists and created a focus on bolstering solidarity among East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian people as well as Pacific Islanders, and other communities of color, including Black Americans and Latino Americans. Over the past few years, there’s been serious reflection, too, about what can be done to address the root causes of anti-Asian violence, including more education to combat biases and mental health resources.
Activists hope that one part of the solution is in continuing to raise awareness about the stereotypes that are used against Asian American people, by bolstering history education in schools. In multiple states including Illinois and Connecticut, legislators have passed bills that require the teaching of Asian American history in grades K-12. These bills strive to push schools to provide more complicated and nuanced portrayals of Asian Americans that go beyond the framing of Asian American people as victims — and highlight their agency as activists and policymakers.
“We have to educate — and we also have to decolonize the things that have been absorbed by all Americans,” says Zia.
These efforts represent marked progress. Overall, activists note that while the causes of anti-Asian discrimination are enduring and as tenacious today as in the 1980s, thanks to continued activism, awareness about these biases has also increased and improved significantly. Continuing to grow this understanding, and maintaining the willingness to fight back against it, is central to moving forward, they say.
“One thing I would ask people to reflect on is the amount of work we have in front of us while recognizing that progress,” says Yang.