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Job losses lead to anti-Japanese sentiment in 1980s Detroit
00:58 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in October 2021 to coincide with the airing of “The Legacy of Vincent Chin” on CNN. It has been updated to reflect the 40th anniversary of Chin’s death.

CNN  — 

Vincent Chin was celebrating his bachelor party at the Fancy Pants strip club in Detroit when he and another patron got into a fight.

“It’s because of you little motherf****** that we’re out of work,” a White autoworker named Ronald Ebens yelled at the 27-year-old Chinese American, as a dancer who worked there later recalled.

The year was 1982, and Detroit – then the automotive capital of the world – was at the worst point of an economic downturn. Competition from Japan was cutting into the profits of US automakers, driving them to rely more heavily on automation and lay off hundreds of thousands of people across Michigan – including Ebens’ stepson Michael Nitz. And Japanese Americans – or anyone mistaken for them – became scapegoats.

With Chin on one side and Ebens and Nitz on the other, the brawl escalated. After the group was kicked out of the club, the fight continued and Ebens and Nitz eventually chased Chin down outside of a nearby McDonald’s. With the help of Nitz, Ebens beat him over the head with a baseball bat again and again.

Four days later, Chin died.

For the family of Vincent Chin and other Asian Americans in his community, justice was never served. Despite legal proceedings in state and federal courts, the assailants would never spend a full day in jail.

Still, Chin’s case paved the way for subtler changes around hate crimes, sentencing guidelines and victims’ rights. And it brought Asian Americans of varied backgrounds together under one movement.

“If we couldn’t bring justice to Vincent Chin, we had to make sure that his legacy – what we had learned and what we had fought for – didn’t go away,” said Helen Zia, an activist and former journalist who is now the executor of the Vincent and Lily Chin estate.

Today, the specter of violence still haunts Asian Americans. The pandemic ignited a wave of xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans that is fueling attacks and harassment three years on. And as activists and leaders mark 40 years since Chin was killed, they say the lessons from his case are more relevant than ever.

Asian Americans fought for accountability

Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second-degree murder for their actions. Later, however, Ebens would plead guilty and Nitz would plead no contest to a reduced charge of manslaughter – a charge that implied that there was no intent to kill Chin, writes Paula Yoo in her young adult nonfiction book “From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement.”

When the time came for sentencing on March 16, 1983, the two men and their defense attorneys were the only ones standing before the judge in the courtroom, Yoo writes.

Back then, it was routine for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to miss sentencing hearings as they weren’t considered a crucial part of legal proceedings, explained Roland Hwang, a lawyer in Michigan and president of the legal advocacy organization American Citizens for Justice. That meant there was no prosecutor in attendance to present the state’s case.

Lily Chin, left, is comforted during a memorial service for her son, Vincent.

It also wasn’t standard practice for judges to hear from victims’ families during sentencing. So no one informed Chin’s mother, Lily Chin, about the hearing.

Nor did the judge hear from any of Chin’s friends, who were there that night, or other witnesses who recounted what they saw to police, according to Yoo.

“It was a complete failure of the criminal justice system,” Zia said.

Instead, the judge heard only from the two men and their lawyers, who told him that Chin had initiated the fight and that the men acted as they did in the heat of the moment. The judge, who Hwang said had a reputation for being lenient with first-time offenders, sentenced each of them to three years’ probation, a $3,000 fine and court costs.

“These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” the judge later wrote, by way of explanation.

When the news reached Chin’s mother and the rest of the Asian American community in Detroit, it was met with outrage. To them, the racial implications were clear.

“It’s almost as if an Asian life is not worth anything,” said Jim Shimoura, another lawyer in Michigan who worked alongside others to raise awareness about Chin’s case. “Had roles been reversed, we’ve always speculated what would have happened if the victim was White and the killer was Asian. Would that Asian person walk away out of court free? Absolutely not.”

In the immediate aftermath, the local Asian American community banded together to protest the judge’s sentence of probation. Zia, Lily Chin, Hwang, Shimoura and other activists formed an organization called American Citizens for Justice that would fight to persuade the judge to reconsider his decision.

In their own examination of the case, they found that police had not interviewed key witnesses, including the dancer who remembered Ebens saying, “It’s because of you little motherf****** that we’re out of work.” That account suggested to the community that Vincent Chin’s race might have played a factor in his killing.

But the judge stood by his decision. So organizers took their concerns to the federal government, arguing that Vincent Chin was targeted and ultimately killed because he was an Asian American.

They sought to put a name to the violence

In April 1983, the FBI launched an investigation into the case and a federal grand jury indicted Ebens and Nitz later that year on two counts: interfering with Vincent Chin’s right to be in a place of public accommodation and conspiring to do so, court documents show.

The federal government’s decision to pursue the case was significant – it was the first federal civil rights trial involving an Asian American in US history.

Yoo told CNN in an earlier interview that the issue of race was key.

A federal jury found Ronald Ebens guilty of violating the civil rights of Vincent Chin in 1984. An appeals court would later reverse the conviction. After a new trial in 1987, Ebens was acquitted.

“There was one question at the heart of the trial: Was this a racially motivated hate crime or was this just a tragic case of a bar brawl with too much toxic masculinity and alcohol gone awry?” she said.

The defense maintained that it was the latter, arguing that Chin’s race was not a factor that led to his killing. A jury in Detroit, however, ruled otherwise.

In June 1984, Ebens was found guilty of interfering with Chin’s civil rights but not guilty of conspiracy. Nitz was found not guilty on both charges. Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but his lawyers appealed his conviction and he was released on bond. An appeals court reversed Ebens’ conviction, citing legal errors made by the government during the first trial.

The Justice Department announced it would retry the case against Ebens, and the new trial was moved to Cincinnati. The Cincinnati jury – who like Ebens were mostly White, male and blue-collar workers – cleared Ebens of all charges.

“It was heartbreaking,” Zia said. “It was a travesty of justice. It was seeing all the effort that we had put, years of getting the word out, just reversed.”

Zia said it was clear to her and other activists who had long worked on Chin’s case that the jury in the second trial didn’t have an understanding of the racism that Asian Americans in Detroit faced in the 1980s. Because there wasn’t concrete evidence that Ebens had used an identifiable racial slur, his actions weren’t seen by the jury as racially motivated, she said – despite the fact that a witness remembered him blaming Chin for the loss of auto jobs.

After the trial, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million to Chin’s estate in a civil suit settled out of court, Zia said. In recent years, Ebens said he was unable to pay down $8 million in accrued interest because he was living paycheck to paycheck.

Chin’s killing and the final outcome became emblematic of the racism and discrimination that Asian Americans in the US endured – too often unrecognized, even when the community understood it to be otherwise.

“That’s the standard that Asian Americans face right now,” Zia added. “If you don’t call somebody a name that White people recognize as a racial slur, it’s not racist.”

In a 2012 interview with journalist Emil Guillermo, Ebens apologized for the killing and said “if there’s any way to undo it, I’d do it.” He maintained, though, that his actions had nothing to do with the auto industry or Chin’s race.

The Chin estate does not accept his apology, Zia said.

The case did lead to some changes

The verdict would shake many Asian Americans’ faith in the US justice system.

“Vincent’s soul will never rest,” Lily Chin would later say. “My life is over.”

Annie Tan, a cousin of Vincent Chin’s and an activist and educator in New York, said that the final outcome was traumatizing for her relatives. After Chin’s killers were ultimately acquitted of federal charges, her family stopped talking about the case at all, she said.

“I think that has probably changed the ways my family thinks about America and about the ways we can succeed and be here,” she said.

The Chinese American Heritage Foundation hosts a memorial in Boston's Chinatown in remembrance of Vincent Chin.

But Tan knows that her cousin’s story paved the way for change. Friends have told her that Chin’s case inspired them to enter activism, law or politics. Zia said she could see the difference that her work and that of other activists had made, too.

“It wasn’t all for naught,” Zia added. “A whole movement had been created, organizations formed … there were new generations of Asian Americans who were becoming civil rights lawyers because of this case.”

Chin’s name became a rallying cry, helping lead to legal reforms that made it easier for other victims to seek justice.

The case