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On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American draftsman, was involved in a brawl outside of a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan. Chin was there for his bachelor’s party, and the fight followed a dispute with two white men, a Chrysler plant supervisor named Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, a laid off auto worker. Soon after, Ebens and Nitz found Chin at a local McDonald’s, where they bludgeoned him with a baseball bat while shouting racial epithets. Chin died from his injuries four days later. He was 27 — and just days away from getting married.
The incident occurred amid an atmosphere of anti-Asian hate in Michigan, where an economic downturn had been blamed on the emergence of the Japanese auto industry. Despite the clear racial motivation — and the severity of the crime — a state court gave Ebens and Nitz a remarkably light sentence: three years’ probation, no jail time, and a $3,000 fine. I was a young attorney at the time, and beginning in 1983 I served as co-counsel to Chin’s mother, Lily. That year, Lily stayed with my family when she came to Los Angeles to advocate for federal charges against the men who killed her son. During a community meeting in a crowded Chinatown restaurant, Lily demanded justice for her son — and then fainted. Seated next to her, I helped her to her feet. Later that day, I asked her if she was OK. “There’s nothing I can do to bring back Vincent,” she said. “But I don’t want any other mother to go through what I have gone through.”
The murder of Vincent Chin galvanized the Asian American community to fight against racial hatred and inspired thousands to pledge their lives to community service and advocacy. Four decades later, however, the event remains unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Given this ignorance, it is tragic — if unsurprising — that many more mothers in the years since have indeed had to endure the pain and trauma that Lily Chin experienced. In the past year, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been victims of more than 6,000 hate incidents, a sharp increase caused, in part, by xenophobic anger over COVID-19. Too often, Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners out to steal jobs from “real Americans,” or model minorities undeserving of special consideration. A large reason for these misperceptions is a sheer lack of Asian American history being taught in America’s schools. This needs to change — because Asian American history is American history.
Beginning with the arrival of Chinese immigrants to build America’s railroads in the 19th century, Asian Americans have played an outsized role in our nation’s past. The internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II — while German Americans and Italian Americans were left alone — remains a blight on our national conscience. Asian Americans were banned from immigrating to the U.S. for 60 years, and their presence was cited as justification for denying citizenship to minorities of other races in the early 20th century. It is because of Asian Americans that English as a Second Language (ESL) education was legalized in the United States, and that bilingual instruction is available for immigrant children. Asian Americans have also found solidarity with other minority groups to forge lasting change, such as when Filipino workers joined Mexican colleagues in organizing the Delano Grape strike in 1965, and have been instrumental in forcing changes to immigration law and standing up for labor rights. Today, Asian Americans are often seen in solidarity with Black Americans protesting racial discrimination and violence.
Better educating Americans of the contributions of Asians is more than just correcting the record. It will also make Asians more visible in the United States today. Asian Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. over the last 20 years, have established themselves in leadership roles in politics, business, sports, technology, entertainment, and the arts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, amid heightened risk of verbal abuse and physical attacks, Asian Americans — who comprise more than 20% of the national health care work force — saved lives through treating patients stricken with disease.
In recent years, Asian Americans have increasingly come together to raise awareness of our role in American history. Organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Stop AAPI Hate, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, and hundreds of others have launched immediate measures to reduce and eliminate hate crimes and incidents. But more can be done to improve understanding of our past. While overt racism is certainly a factor, complacency is a bigger problem. Many parents, students, and teachers feel that if Asian kids are doing well in school, they don’t need to know their own history. That, we’ve learned, is a mistake — because history repeats itself.
It isn’t hard to see the connection between Japanese internment during World War II, harassment of Sikh Americans after 9/11, and the attacks on Asian Americans today. We need to work with parents, students, teachers, administrators, and political leaders to require ethnic studies and to train more teachers. My wife Pat and I have promoted the education of a million youth to understand the history, struggles, and accomplishments of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through the Asian American Education Project. We have started by training 500 teachers in how to tell our stories — but that number is far from enough.
After the federal trial against Vincent Chin’s killers resulted in acquittal, Lily Chin decided to leave the U.S. She returned to Guangzhou, China, where I visited her in 1995. Her cheerful spirit could not hide the deep sadness she felt — that she had lost everything dear to her. Nothing could have brought her son back. But a concerted nationwide push to improve education of Asian American history among all Americans may ensure that his death will not have been in vain.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at Asia Society
Asia Society celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with events, interviews, and a spotlight on the accomplishments of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). This May, and throughout the year, visit AsiaSociety.org/AsianAmerica regularly for new events, interviews with prominent AAPIs in their fields, podcasts, videos, archival content, and more.