35 Years After Vincent Chin's Murder, How Has America Changed?
On a Detroit summer night in 1982, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin went out for his bachelor party. But when he arrived at a club, he encountered two strangers who would become his killers.
At the time, Detroit had 17 percent unemployment and auto plants were hemorrhaging workers. Japan, with its cheap car exports, was targeted as a major source of blame by autoworkers and politicians alike. When Chin entered a club with his friends, he was confronted by Chrysler worker Ronald Ebens and his laid-off stepson Michael Nitz.
Apparently confusing Chin for Japanese, the men reportedly started dropping racial slurs and said, “It’s because of you little motherf*****s that we’re out of work.” The men came to blows but were dispersed by club security. However, Ebens and Nitz continued to pursue Chin in their car and found him in the area some 20 minutes later. It was then that the two men severely beat him with a baseball bat, cracking open his skull. Four days later, on what was supposed to be his wedding day, Chin died from his injuries.
Ebens and Nitz were later charged with second-degree murder but were able to plea bargain down to the lesser charge of manslaughter. They were ordered to pay $3,000 and serve three years probation, with no jail time. “I just didn't think that putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society,” the judge, Charles Kaufmann, in the case said. “You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”
The verdict prompted outcry and protests among Asian Americans. The president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council at the time deemed it a "$3,000 license to kill” Chinese. But the case has also been viewed as a turning point for Asian American civil rights engagement.
Monday, June 19, marks the 35th anniversary of Chin’s murder. To mark the occasion, we asked notable Asian Americans involved with the case and social justice issues to reflect on Vincent Chin and how he remains relevant today.
Director, Testedfilm.com, and producer of Vincent Who?
The first time I heard about the attack on Vincent Chin, I was playing with my siblings in the back of our Chinese restaurant. The young family friend and groom-to-be was in the hospital fighting for his life and the adults in my family — my parents and grandparents — were trying to decide who would go to the hospital first and what kind of flowers to bring.
For the next few days, a steady stream of community members would come by our famous family business either seeking or sharing updates on Vincent and the case against the killers. Every detail big and small gripped everyone in Chinatown. While the local press ran articles and reports on the story, the only information that we trusted came from word of mouth.
After Vincent’s death, the community eagerly awaited the criminal trial for nine months. After all, to us, it was a clear-cut case of murder. These two men knew what they were doing the moment they got in their car and started driving around the city trying to track down Vincent. They knew what they were doing when they grabbed the bat from their car and proceeded to hold down Vincent and beat him to death. We all just assumed these men would be going to prison. We were just waiting to find out for how long.
Unfortunately, when the judge handed down his sentence of only $3,000 fine and three years of probation, many of us were shocked and outraged. These killers would not be spending a single night in prison. How could these guys get away with murder like that? Was the life of an Asian American worth so little?
While we all knew Detroit was a racially-polarized city and that we faced day-to-day discrimination, I don’t know if we understood the depth of the institutional racism that we faced. We knew that the African American community was treated unfairly by the police and justice system. I don’t know if we understood that we would be treated similarly.
If there’s one good thing that came out of this tragedy, it’s that our community fought back. Thanks to the efforts of people like Helen Zia, Roland Hwang, James Shimoura, and so many more unsung heroes in Detroit and around the country, the community was able to mount a vigorous fight against the system.
While we didn’t necessarily get the justice we wanted for Vincent, our community took many major steps in our long history of fighting for our rights and equality. Our voice got stronger and our ability to advocate for our community strengthened.
Today, that fight continues, not just against the continued hate crimes, particularly against South Asian Americans, but also in making our voices heard on issues that affect our community like immigration, education, and negative media portrayals. That is the legacy of the Vincent Chin case. May we honor his memory by never forgetting and continuing to fight for justice for our communities.
Journalist and author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People; organizer and spokesperson in the Vincent Chin case.
It seems hardly possible that 35 years have passed since Vincent's death, when a small but committed community of Asian Americans rose up to protest his killers' getting away with murder. Vincent would be 62 today had he not been stalked and bludgeoned in a climate of hate against anyone who "looked Japanese." Today, there are echoes of that hostility in the intense animosity and Islamophobia of this post-9/11 era when anyone who "looks Muslim" is a target.
A national civil rights movement sprang out of the 1982 tragedy and miscarriage of justice, reverberating across America, to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. For the first time, then-separate Asian ethnic communities came together at the grass roots to stand up for civil rights and against racist violence. That national movement and its multiracial, multicultural, cross-class, interdenominational voices prodded the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. Over the years, new pan-Asian advocacy organizations emerged along with generations of young activists.
Just as significantly, Vincent Chin's legacy has profoundly impacted every American, reaching far beyond Asian Americans. To cite just two examples:
First, Vincent’s case exposed the falsehood that race in America is only “white” or “black.” Vincent's race in the police report was listed as “white” because Michigan’s crime statistics offered only two choices. The public outcry over his killing forced states like Michigan to recognize America’s racial diversity beyond "black" and "white."
Second, Vincent's case marked the turn toward a more expansive view of civil rights. Several liberal white attorneys including the Michigan ACLU had asserted that civil rights laws do not protect Asians and other immigrants. Their restrictive interpretation would have prevented Vincent Chin, Asian Americans, Latinos, and immigrants in general from federal civil rights protection. Vincent's case helped open the door for more inclusive federal protections, including perceived gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
Today, there are many disturbing parallels to 1982. Hate and crimes against people who "look Muslim" mount, as do homophobic, anti-immigrant, and other human rights transgressions. State violence against African Americans continues unfettered and unpunished, spurring Black Lives Matter. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Vincent Chin, and too many others share stark patterns of racism and justice denied. Meanwhile, vitriolic white supremacy, misogyny, and nativism emanate from the highest halls of power and are cheered by hate-mongers globally, contributing to a climate of bigotry.
Thirty-five years after Vincent's killing, the politics of division have become more calculated and extreme, even as the growing numbers of people of color are reaching the tipping point where “whites” will soon be a minority. Indeed, the closer America gets to that tipping point, more extreme reaction can be expected from those seeking to keep their power. The “angry white working class” lashed out in Vincent's death in 1982 and the Exclusion Act massacres of 1882, even as some are just now discovering white resentment. Rather, history has shown that the perceived loss of privilege and supremacy stirs the fires of reaction whether after the Reconstruction, the Arab Spring, or the Obama presidency.
As in Vincent Chin’s time, the antidote to this toxic cauldron is the coming together of people of conscience to tear down walls of bigotry. In the organizing around Vincent's case, people overcame mutual fears and suspicions to join together against hate and injustice. It wasn’t easy to bring people together then; there was no spontaneous kumbaya. Still, as every generation must learn, the long arc of history bends toward justice — when justice-loving people make it happen. The Vincent Chin case shows what can be accomplished when people from all walks of life come together to fight for their common humanity. That, too, is a legacy of Vincent Chin.
Distinguished Professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, Chair of the Committee of 100. Essay is excerpted from his chapter in Asian America: A Primary Source Reader (Yale University Press, 2017)
The Vincent Chin case has passed into myth among Asian Americans and Detroiters. The smiling Chin, innocent in his high school photograph, became an iconic image through its replication on homemade flyers and in the mainstream media alike. There was no harder place to have an Asian face back then, looking like the enemy in a Motor City wracked by recession.
“Remember Vincent Chin” is a rallying cry, and an allusion to him summarizes the prejudice toward Asian Americans in all its forms. American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), the advocacy group set up to advance the Chin cause by Asian Americans in Detroit, is memorialized in a series of pictures by Corky Lee, the “official” photographer of Asian America. Lee has captured them at their marches with their banner unfurled: “It’s Not Fair!” Nobody had seen Asian Americans converge on downtown unless they were peddling eggrolls at the Far East Festival.
There are two documentary movies about Chin. Who Killed Vincent Chin? was nominated for an Academy Award and has become the most widely used resource in Asian American Studies courses, likely watched by every student enrolled in such a class. Vincent Who? was produced by the scion of a Detroit Chinatown restaurant family intent on transmitting the story to the next generation.
To this day, conferences and a pilgrimage to the gravesite are held on the anniversaries of the crime. Through the internet, T-shirts are available, with simple white lettering against a black background: “V. Chin, 1955-1982.”
Yet I know I risk confusing my own coming of age with history. I grew up in Detroit, and I was there in 1982. My father was an engineer at Ford Motor Company. So I remember the place and the time that are integral to this account, and I doubt I could forget either. Although I did not know Vincent Chin, I can identify with him.
The Vincent Chin case changed my life. As a child, like almost all children, I hoped merely to be normal. The details that make up the Vincent Chin case made me realize that the childhood cruelties I experienced — the teasing and the taunting of the playground with the same epithets Chin heard — could and should not be erased or overcome with the teacher's intonation to retort that “sticks and stones could break my bones but words would never hurt me.”
Kids suffer all sorts of bodily harm — falling off swing sets, breaking bones, enduring high fevers — and in general, they heal just fine, even if an adult could not do the same. Against all outward appearances, youngsters experience psychological trauma that may be relegated to the trivial and momentary, beneath notice and unremarked upon, but which turns out in fact to be much more severe and lasting. The risk of physical attack arises from verbal abuse. A beating emanates from slurs often enough. The transgression differs in degree but not kind. Race is complex.
Nobody desires to declare himself a victim either. To be pitied is to be powerless. It remains by no means easy for Asian immigrants and their American-born progeny, most of whom tried to identify with the dominant majority and few of whom aspired to stand up and speak out, to organize themselves into a cause.
The death of a man was the birth of a movement.
Angela E. Oh
Attorney, mediator of civil rights cases, and writer of Asian American stories
Thinking about the contribution to humanity made by Vincent Chin and his life lost has brought up many questions and reminders about the fragility of our relations to one another.
His death on June 23, 1982, doesn’t seem to be 35 years in the past. He lived in a moment when the reality of our inextricable ties to one another — through all of space, and through all of time — revealed itself in a most horrible way. The killing of Chin by Ebens and Nitz was the result of exactly the things that we know cause so much suffering: ignorance, jealousy, insecurity (doubt), and delusion — all of which were heightened by being in a place called “The Fancy Pants” bar.
The narrative of what happened on the night of June 19, 1982, has been shared many times, in many formats, in front of many audiences, over many decades. Yet, still, there are many more who have no idea who Vincent was, what happened to make his death an event to be remembered every June 19th, and why the tragedy had to happen in the first place. Why? Because people do not choose to study their lived reality — and it is simply more convenient to have “teacher” tell you what is important, what is worth analyzing in great detail, and what is worth remembering so you can get an “A” on the test to follow. But real events, like the complex conditions that led to the early taking of Vincent Chin’s life, are not something that would be reviewed by way of any test. It was an ugly and horrific thing that was too scary for parents to teach their children, and too remote for most adults to pay close attention to — unless one was Chinese, Japanese, or maybe another Asian ethnic American.
Vincent Chin and his death created an opening — a way for people to understand so much more than what they knew before hearing his name. He introduced an entire sociopolitical community (Asian Americans) to understand and remember the existence of race-based hate, he allowed scholars to research and build new frameworks for pushing the limits of what the disciplines of sociology, psychology, legal studies, and economics could offer in an analysis of a changing society and world. He also raised political consciousness among activists who knew that racial and ethnic identity could be lightning rods for violence at any moment when conditions beyond any individual’s control shift.
The fact that we currently live in a moment where this nation has decided its relationship to the rest of the world will pivot toward Asia (China, in particular) as the new competitor in the economic, diplomatic, and scientific arenas signals something. Always a mystery, no matter how many rise to levels of leadership; always inscrutable, no matter how many creative means are used to tell our stories; always a possible threat, no matter how much we share in the deep knowledge of a culture that knows the Tao is that formless, nameless, and essential resonance that can bring harmony into the world we must navigate.
Vincent Chin lives.
Attorney, vice president of American Citizens for Justice, and activist in the Vincent Chin case
June 19, 1982 was a defining day for Asian Americans in the civil rights movement. It was on that day that many of us were conscripted to join the Asian American civil rights movement, although I did not realize it until a phone call months later. I still remember the March 1983 call from Kin Yee of the Chinese Welfare Council to me as president of the local OCA chapter to join forces to fight the sentence of just three years probation and a $3,000 fine that was handed to assailants Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. For me, that call began a journey to reconsider the sentence and undertake two federal civil rights trials.
The killing of Vincent Chin taught us that any Asian American can be the victim of racial intolerance, at any time and any place. The Vincent Chin case forced Asian Americans into the civil rights discourse. It was bound to happen. If it was not Vincent Chin in 1982, it would have been Jim Ming Hai Loo in 1989, who was pistol whipped and killed in a Raleigh billiard hall by Robert and Lloyd Piche, who mistook him for Vietnamese and targeted him for the fallen soldiers in the Vietnam War. Or it would be Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who in February 2017 was shot and killed by Adam Purinton in an Olathe, Kansas, bar after being told he did not belong in the U.S.
And there are many other cases.
The Vincent Chin case altered the Michigan Asian American community’s place in the larger community. If Vincent Chin was not killed, American Citizens for Justice would not have formed. The Michigan Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs would not have been created. The Vincent Chin case transformed a biracial discussion on race relations into a multiracial one. So the Vincent Chin case and other cases each serve as a wakeup call to address racial intolerance.
On June 24, the OCA Detroit chapter, and American Citizens for Justice/Asian American Center for Justice, will host the 35th year remembrance of the Vincent Chin case. Our work to commemorate the 35th year remembrance of the Vincent Chin case reminds us of the continuing relevance of the case, given today’s political climate against immigrants or anyone who looks different from the prototypical American.
Let’s remember Vincent Chin in Detroit, Jim Ming Hai Loo in Raleigh, Srivinas Kochibhotla in Olathe, Kansas, Woon Jun Yoon in Bloomington, Indiana, Joseph Ileto in Chatsworth, California, Navrose Mody in Jersey City, Balbir Singh Sodhi in Mesa, Arizona, Satwant Singh Kaleka and five others in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. So many senseless deaths, all because of racial intolerance. But also so many opportunities for Asian Americans to join the national movement for racial justice and healing.
Soros Equality Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion and the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.
While the long list of Asian Americans who have lost their lives to hate violence does not begin with Vincent Chin’s name, his death served as a flash point and a movement moment. Helen Zia wrote about Vincent Chin’s legacy in her powerful book, American Dreams: The Emergence of An American People: “Losing the legal effort in its first national campaign of this magnitude after five years of intensive organizing did not devastate the Asian American community; instead, it had been transformed.”
It is tragic that hate crimes have to occur in order for communities and stakeholders to pay attention to racial violence and racism in this country. In my own experience working with South Asian communities, this has been true as well. After the 9/11 attacks, South Asian, Muslim, Ara, and Sikh community members contended with workplace discrimination, schoolyard bullying, airport profiling, and hate violence. The murders of Balbir Singh Sodhi, Vasudev Patel, and Waquar Hassan — a gas station owner, convenience store owner, and grocery store owner, respectively — occurred during the first week after 9/11 and sent shock waves through our communities. But the backlash didn’t end there.
This August marks the five-year anniversary of the massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a man with ties to white nationalist organizations killed six people and wounded several others. And, in the wake of the presidential election, Asian American organizations are documenting an uptick in bias and violence, including the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian-American engineer in Olathe, Kansas. Just as the murder of Vincent Chin mobilized Asian Americans 35 years ago, South Asians are heeding calls to action as a result of post 9/11 and post–election hate violence.
Marking the 35th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s murder means paying tribute to his memory and expressing our gratitude to the organizers who preserved his legacy. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the roles that Asian Americans must play in advancing racial justice — especially in this current moment. In the 35 years since Vincent Chin’s murder, the Asian American community has been transformed. Today, Asian Americans represent the fastest growing racial group in the United States. Yet, at the same time, many community members are facing increased risks for deportations, racial profiling and surveillance, poverty and displacement, and the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline.
All institutions that work with our communities — whether a civil rights organization or an Asian American professionals network or the Asia Society — must be ready and willing to talk about the impact of racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, and Islamophobia on Asian Americans. Organizations must also be honest in their internal inquiries about whether they truly represent the full spectrum of Asian America, particularly in their relationships with South Asian and Southeast Asian communities. And, we must acknowledge and contend with the schisms that continue to persist within Asian America, especially when it comes to differing perspectives related to police brutality, affirmative action, and undocumented immigrants that often pit communities of color against each other. One way to address these gaps is to build and support intergenerational and multi-class organizing and base-building efforts by local Asian American groups, such as the ones involved with Seeding Change.
We must also be clear about our role in this political moment in which policies and rhetoric threaten to divide our communities with bans, walls, and raids. I take inspiration from the Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations who came together to endorse a statement of resistance after the election that says in part: “We will reject any attempts by the Trump Administration to use AAPIs to make a case for their legitimacy and diversity, and will not compromise our values and agency to gain a ‘seat at the table’ in pursuit of narrow benefits. Nor will we conflate marginal visibility for genuine power and influence for our communities.”
Thirty-five years later, let us honor the legacy of Vincent Chin by reflecting on the growth of the Asian American movement — and by recommitting ourselves to racial justice for Asian Americans and all people of color.
Human Rights Lawyer, Orange County Regional Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Asia Society Asia 21 Young Leader
“Go back to China!” screamed the man with hateful fury in his eyes, swerving his car next to his victim.
This is 2016 in Southern California. The man was targeting a successful Korean-American corporate law partner at one of the largest firms in Orange County, California — one of the densest Asian American regions in the country.
The murder of Vincent Chin took place in 1982. But sadly, hate incidents and hate crimes have steadily been on the rise since the most recent presidential election. Anti-Asian attacks are also on the rise but are often underreported.
My organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA), was founded in 1983, as the case against Vincent Chin’s killers was working its way through the courts. Stewart Kwoh, president and founder of Advancing Justice-LA, became the only out-of-state lawyer to work on the case, flying out to Detroit, Michigan, to help Chin’s family pursue “justice for Vincent.”
In the years that have followed, Advancing Justice-LA has become the nation’s largest legal organization focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and over that time has helped to document thousands of cases of anti-Asian hate as well as advocated on behalf of hate crimes victims throughout Southern California, including Vietnamese, Filipino, and Chinese Americans, killed by white supremacists and others who singled out Asian Americans for attack.
As the Regional Director of Advancing Justice-LA’s Orange County office — a county known for its strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist hate groups — I am continuously reminded of Vincent Chin and the importance of our work in ensuring that not one more ‘Vincent’ is assaulted and murdered because of the color of their skin.
As a human rights lawyer, I am deeply disturbed by the hateful rhetoric and racial tension that currently exists in this country. As Asian Americans, there is a tendency to think of cases like Vincent Chin’s as isolated hate incidents specifically targeting Asians. However, a closer analysis of what happened to Vincent Chin reveals that there is a deep-rooted racism and fear of the "other" which dominate American consciousness and have led to new civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter.
As we reflect on the anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death, we need to remind ourselves that Vincent Chin is not just about Asian Americans. Vincent Chin is a reminder that we need to fight for racial justice and equality for all of us — no matter the color of our skin.
Writer, artist, and professor at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law
Vincent Chin's death was not an aberration. The violent loss of a young man so full of promise, so precious to his family, is, of course, singular. Stop. Mourn. Then add this discordant truth: the murder of Vincent Chin was completely consistent with a pattern of racialized violence that marks ours as a nation still in the fraught season of becoming. "No person is less valuable than any other," we say it, but we don't yet live it.
When I was a child my family moved into a fourplex on Mariposa Avenue, Los Angeles. In the musty basement, we found old Nazi paraphernalia — a swastika poster, pro-Hitler tracts — "probably left over from secret Bund meetings," Dad, a Nisei WWII vet, said. What? "They met in basements all over America." Nazis? In the U.S.? Yes, 20,000 bellowing "Heil Hitler" in a packed Madison Square Garden. Hate is at home here. Asian Americans who know Asian American history — a notable sub-group of Asians in America generally — know that Chinese from the Gold Mountain time were massacred, lynched, tarred, and feathered up and down the West Coast and deep into the Northwest. Add the better-known histories of Native American extermination and of the slave trade, and the individual "hate crime" starts fitting into a deep-rooted structure. Researching Klan history in the basement of Harvard's Widener library, I found congressional testimony on reconstruction violence that took up more storage-shelf space than I was allotted as a graduate student: volume after volume documenting rape, murder, torture, mutilation, terrorism, burned bodies as the former Confederacy instituted Jim Crow and nullified the 13th and 14th amendments. Violence directed at those considered somehow less than human is the pattern, not the aberration.
Since the passage of the 1960s-era civil rights acts, we have changed the dominant story to portray racists as exceptional throwbacks to a bad past, insults to the enlightened present. In this view, Vincent Chin was murdered by men who were rare, terrible, different from the norm. The frame separating the racist from the rest of us leads to deep discomfort when the Black Lives Matter movement confronts us with a statistical reality: Black lives are regularly extinguished because of someone's misperception of threat.
What connects a racist murderer, a cop making a grievous error, and a university hiring committee that "can't find" any women or people of color? This question is considered impolite. The structural exclusions in places where knowledge is formed and disseminated, where culture and ideas of normalcy are purveyed, where policy decisions that distribute wealth and well-being originate, are forms of racism as significant as the raging fists and kicks of drunken street racists. Parlor and gutter racists have always worked in parallel in this nation, from the clergy and academics who justified slavery, to the "model minority" sociological theorists who perpetuated an idea of Asian advantage, that turns — just as the Bund turned on Jews — so quickly to resentment and violence.
Most of my students don't know about the Vincent Chin murder. Or the Stockton school shooting. Or the Thien Minh Ly murder. Or so many other times when being Asian in the wrong place at the wrong time was a death sentence. Although it is more recent, I fear they have forgotten the Srinivas Kuchibhotla murder. Please remember. Then consider the next step: ask why we are shocked each time, if it happens over and over. The hate so deep that it leads one human to kill another is a disease that comes from our history. The cure is studying that history and pledging to transform all our institutions (hello Asia Society, are you on board?) to bring about equality. This means asking hard questions about representation and power sharing, taking no pass just because we aren't "real racists" wielding baseball bats. We can do this. That is what it means to remember Vincent Chin.
Documentary filmmaker and professor of Asian American studies at UCLA
I worry about a lot of things whenever my teenage son leaves for a night out. But I do not have the fear that he has a target on his back as Muslim, South Asian, Latino, and African American parents do. At this moment and in this year, the constellation of race, politics and violence is lined up more favorably for Asian Americans, at least those who are not brown. That can change at anytime, however. We have been there before and it is likely we will be there again.
Thirty-five years ago, Lily Chin, an immigrant from China, lost her only child Vincent when an autoworker named Ronald Ebens bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat. When I filmed the documentary about the case, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a police officer that witnessed the attack told me, “His skull was obviously fractured, there was brains laying on the street … from my experience of being on the street for so long, the man was a goner.”
What could have enraged Ebens enough to hunt Chin down and take a baseball bat to his head? Ebens was a family man with no criminal record and had a plum foreman’s job at Chrysler. He had everything to lose. I never bought the argument that anger over Japan’s car imports drove Ebens to murder. Certainly economic resentment towards the Japanese — and the historic disregard for the humanity of Asians as “the other” — was one ingredient. But in any encounter of racial violence, there is a whole toxic stew.
On the night of June 19, 1982, Chin and Ebens crossed paths at the Fancy Pants, a Detroit area strip club. They had probably been drinking — Ron was known to have a problem with alcohol. Then there were their individual personalities. Chin did not fit anyone’s stereotype of an emasculated Asian male or passive model minority. He was a gregarious guy who played football in high school. His friends told me that he was not the type to turn the other cheek. And here he was in a fight with two white guys who outnumbered and outsized him. What kind of rage was stoked inside Ebens’ head while an Asian American was, as the witness “Starlene” described it, “busting up” he and his stepson Michael Nitz? That is the crux of a hate crime prosecution. What was going on inside the defendant’s mind?
Racist killers can be anonymous and intentional, of the Dylan Roof variety. But I believe quite often race is the trigger that turns an everyday encounter into calamity, as our private and public selves collide. And in the body politic, racism is a cancer that might hit one organ, but then metastasizes. That is why black lives matter and why I have to fear for everyone’s child, not only my own. During the 1980s, Asian Americans were disproportionately victims of hate crimes. The violence experienced by brown and black Americans today is our problem. To borrow from the late comedian Richard Pryor, justice cannot mean just us.