How Vincent Chin's Death Gave Others A VoiceHistorians in the News
tags: racism, violence, Asian American History
Writer Paula Yoo was 13 years old and finishing up seventh grade when Vincent Chin was killed. Chin was a 27-year-old draftsman who was celebrating his impending wedding at a strip club in Detroit, when he was bludgeoned to death by a pair of white men. Those men were apparently upset by their perception that American auto jobs were disappearing as a result of Japanese success in the auto industry. (Chin was Chinese.)
Yoo didn't learn much about Chin's killing when it actually happened — let alone imagine that it would eventually become the subject of one of her books. But as an adult, she became fascinated by Chin's story and how it spurred a new generation of Asian Americans into political action. She started doing some reading and research, which eventually turned into her latest non-fiction book, geared toward young adults, which will be published next month: From A Whisper to A Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement.
Full disclosure — Paula and I first met in the 90s when we both worked for People magazine in Los Angeles — so I've known her for years. She's now a TV writer and producer in addition to being the author of several children's books about famous Asian Americans.
Tell us a little bit about who Vincent Chin was, and what happened to him.
Vincent Chin is famous in the Asian American community; his name has resurfaced recently due to the spike in anti-Asian racism. His was the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. On the night of June 19, 1982, the night of his bachelor party, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white auto workers in Detroit. Ronald Ebens was a foreman at Chrysler at the time, and his stepson, Michael Nitz, was a recently laid-off auto worker. The reason I mention that is because this happened during the height of anti-Japanese sentiment. The American auto industry was reeling, due to increased competition from Japanese import cars and mass layoffs happening across the country. Things were especially bad in Michigan, home to the Big Three: Ford, Chrysler and GM.
Vincent was beaten in the head so badly, he lapsed into a coma and died four days later. Before he lost consciousness, he whispered three words to one of the friends who'd been out with him that night: "It's not fair." He was buried the day after what should have been his wedding day.
What happened after Vincent's death? Was there a trial?
More than one. The first was presided over by Judge Charles Kaufman. He gave both Ebens and Nitz three years' probation, fined them $3,000 and court costs and released them. He later said that they "weren't the kind of men you send to jail." Citing the fact that neither man had a previous record, Kaufman said that he just didn't think putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society. That "you don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal."
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