The web of injustice that entangled all U.S. minority groups in the 20th century provided a number of reasons to fight against discrimination. For Asian Americans, however, the ban on Chinese immigrants, the placement of Japanese Americans into internment camps and the xenophobia that spread during the Vietnam War proved to be particular catalysts. Then, there was the murder of a Michigan man named Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American killed in a 1982 hate crime after two white men beat him because they blamed Asians for the auto industry’s decline in Detroit. Why was Vincent Chin’s death a rallying cry? Find out with this profile of information about Vincent Chin’s life, death and legacy.
Who Was Vincent Chin?
In June 1982, there’s no question that Vincent Chin was focused on the future. Not only was the 27-year-old from Oak Park, Mich., set to marry his fiancée Vikki Wong that month, he was also shopping for a home that he, his soon-to-be-wife and widowed mother Lily Chin would share, journalist Helen Zia reported. Chin could afford to make the move, thanks to thriving in the computer graphics field. The onetime busboy had evidently come full circle—but not without sacrifice.
Determined to have a professional career rather than toil away in restaurants and laundries like his Army veteran father had, Chin took steps to ensure that he’d be financially secure, according to Zia. As a student, he dropped his architecture major because he questioned the field’s stability. Instead, he ended up studying computer operations, which helped him land a job at an engineering firm. But Chin continued to put his days as a busboy to use, working weekends at restaurants to set aside more money for a new home.
Chin would never move his family into a new house. On June 19, 1982, his future was sadly snuffed out. The young man who penned poetry for his fiancée, loved fishing and reading and fulfilled his parents’ longing for a child when they adopted him from China’s Guandong Province was robbed of the chance to live out his dreams.
How Did Chin Become a Hate Crime Victim?
With his wedding imminent, Chin and his friends went to a Detroit-area topless bar called Fancy Pants. When the dancers there appeared to lavish Chin with attention, a white autoworker named Ronald Ebens reportedly grew resentful. There with his 22-year-old stepson Michael Nitz, Ebens, 43, began taunting Chin and his friends.
One dancer said that she heard Ebens remark, “It’s because of you motherf—kers that we’re out of work.” Ebens was alluding to Detroit’s crumbling auto industry and the gains made by Japanese carmakers, clueless that Chin was Chinese-American. Tired of being taunted, Chin reportedly had a heated exchange with Ebens. He didn’t know this would be his last exchange with anyone.
After Chin and his friends left the club, Ebens and Nitz tracked him down at a fast-food restaurant. There, Ebens beat him severely with a baseball bat, while Nitz held him down, according to the Detroit Free Press. When he arrived at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Chin’s “head looked like a watermelon,” Van Ong, the charge-nurse-on-duty, told the Free Press. Chin was soon brain dead. Before losing consciousness, Chin reportedly said, “It’s not fair.” He succumbed to his injuries on June 23, 1982. His wedding was just five days away. Vikki Wong would not become a bride, and Lily Chin was completely alone—both her husband and only child now dead.
A Symbol of Injustice
For killing Chin, neither Ebens nor Nitz spent a day behind bars. Instead, the duo was placed on three years probation and made to pay a fine of $3,000 and court costs of $780. Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman explained the shocking sentence he’d handed out by remarking that Ebens had held down a job for more than 17 years and that his stepson was working and going to school. “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” he said.
The sentence Ebens and Nitz received outraged members of the Asian-American community and beyond. On May 9, 1983, nearly two months after Judge Kaufman’s decision, an estimated crowd of 1,000 rallied in Detroit to protest. Activists worked to sway the U.S. Justice Department to charge Chin’s killers with violating his civil rights. In November 1983, the activism seemingly paid off when a federal grand jury indicted Ebens and Nitz on one count of violating Chin’s civil rights and one count of conspiracy. Ebens was later sentenced to 25 years in prison on the civil rights count, but the charges against Nitz were dropped.