The Atlanta Shootings, Vincent Chin and America's History of Anti-Asian RacismRoundup
tags: racism, violence, Asian American History, Vincent Chin
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in modern American political, social and urban/suburban history, he is the author and editor of several books, including White Flight (2005), One Nation Under God (2015) and Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (2019).
In a press conference on Wednesday, law enforcement officials in Cherokee County, Georgia, drew some surprising conclusions about the man they had just arrested and accused of killing eight people at three spas in the Atlanta area.
Despite the appearance of anti-Asian bias in the attacks, which killed six Asian women, the sheriff’s office suggested that racial bias played no role in the case. “During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds asserted. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”
The officers accepted the suspect’s word that he was actually motivated by a sexual addiction and seeking to “eliminate” a source of “temptation.” As they did so, the authorities seemed to rationalize his actions. “He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him,” Capt. Jay Baker argued, “and this is what he did.”
The actual motive for these killings is still unproven, but the long history of anti-Asian violence in America suggests that it’s unwise to draw the quick and easy conclusions these officials have apparently made.
Consider the killing of Chinese American man Vincent Chin, nearly four decades ago.
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.
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