The Civil Rights Lessons of Vincent Chin’s Murder

On the 30th anniversary of his murder, activists reflect on the brutal hate crime, and lessons they've learned over and over since his death.

By Julianne Hing Jun 20, 2012

Vincent Chin would have been 57 today. But the Michigan man never made it out of his 20s. Instead, 30 years ago this week Chin was brutally murdered when he was bludgeoned with a baseball bat wielded by two white, jobless auto workers who thought Chin, a Chinese-American man, was Japanese. "It’s because of you little [expletive] that we’re out of work," witnesses said Ronald Ebens yelled at Chin before he and his stepson Michael Nitz trailed Chin and attacked him.

Chin’s Asianness made him a target at a time when it was popular to blame Japanese automakers for the crumbling U.S. auto industry. His death, and the protracted and largely unsuccessful fight to bring his killers to justice galvanized Asian-Americans, spurring the community to organize and act and speak out. On the 30th anniversary of his killing, civil rights advocates are telling his story again with fresh urgency. As racialized hate trains its eye on new targets, communities of color have had to learn and relearn the lessons Chin’s death offered many times over in the decades since.

Here now, civil rights advocates and activists offer up the key lessons they’ve carried with them in the 30 years since Chin was killed.

Sharing our stories and knowing our history is a necessary, political act. The effort to keep the lessons of Chin’s death and the fight for justice from being swallowed up by the unstoppable passage of time is not about any romantic nostalgia–understanding the past is key to making sense of the ongoing fight for justice today, activists say.

"The facts of the story are never going to change. It’s never going to have a happy ending, but it can move people to get indignant. It can move people to action," said Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, a Michigan-based writer and activist. It’s often said that in the the aftermath of Chin’s murder, the Asian-American community was born. Asian Americans, who tended to identify by ethnicity first, came to unite around a new political identity. Chin became a symbol in the Asian-American civil rights movement, a reminder that the struggle for justice is never quite over. Wang organized the Vincent Chin Postcard Project to collect exactly these sorts of stories. Among Wang’s favorite responses was one which asked: "How long will it be before we forget Trayvon Martin like we forgot Vincent Chin?"

Images and language matters. Dehumanizing language and images make it easier to attack those who are treated as less than fully human. Whatever the community, whoever the target, demagoguery comes with a real human cost. "People who do this are putting our lives at risk," said Wang. She cited this year’s fearmongering political ads which played on American fears about the economic ascendance of Asian countries. In transparently coded images and words, politicians exploit those fears, but not without with great risk. "People see those ads and even if they don’t fully understand the message of the ad they take away this fear of China, and that makes it dangerous for those of us real Asians who are walking around on the street."

Immunity from hate is an illusion. "Even within impacted communities, I often hear: ‘Oh, that happened years ago,’ or ‘Oh, we’re going to be good Americans and it won’t happen to us,’ or ‘Oh that sucks for him but that hasn’t happened to me yet.’" said Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Billoo has organized South Asian, Muslim and Arab communities in response to post-9/11 Islamophobia. "The question becomes: how do you deal with the desensitization of hate? It’s frightening to see that history repeats itself, which is why it’s so important to connect the history."

"When Vincent was killed it was a wake-up call that Asian Americans had to be vigilant about racist attacks, that they had to be vigilant about how animosity toward Asian countries would continue to have an impact on Asian Americans," said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Suddenly, Kwoh said, Asian Americans couldn’t afford not to be involved and to organize themselves and others, and to build alliances with people who weren’t Asian.

We are stronger when we speak up for each other within and across racial lines. "A lot of times our mistake in advocacy is not to connect the dots between communities. Would we be in a different place if we were speaking out against hate crimes when they weren’t impacting us directly?" said Billoo. "Where I find inspiration is in looking at the Japanese-American community’s evolution around the [World War II] internment issue, in challenging it and continuing to talk about it and broadening that conversation to say: ‘You did that to us. You cannot do that to other people,’" Billoo said.

Justice is also about the small acts of solidarity and community-building. "I’d love if people could ask themselves: are we challenging hate in our daily lives?" Billoo said. "What does it mean to interrupt someone when they’re saying something that’s inappropriate?"

This weekend Asian Pacific Americans for Progress is organizing a nationwide townhall this Saturday, June 23 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Chin’s death. The event which will be streamed live at 2pm ET at