'All Asians look same': Japan's success and murder of Chinese man Vincent Chin make a chilling tale of xenophobia
Detroit in the ‘80s was a powder keg of racial animosity towards Asian-Americans and American automobile companies only fanned the flames
“All Asians look the same,” is a common racist trope that exists by and large in American society, if not globally. It was a deciding factor in the fate of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man celebrating his bachelor party at a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan in 1982.
But there is a more complex structure of anti-Asian bigotry and xenophobia at play here. And at a time when this specific kind of bigotry is at an all-time high in the US, it’s important to recognize these structures. Thus, it’s important to know the story of Chin and his tragic death.
In 1982, a white Chrysler autoworker brutally beat a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin to death with a baseball bat in Detroit. He served no jail time and paid a $3780 fine. This outrage sparked a rise in Asian-American civil rights advocacy and consciousness ... /1 pic.twitter.com/7qWsPkopfh— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) March 24, 2021
Detroit in the ‘80s was a powder keg of racial animosity towards Asian-Americans. The Japanese automobile industry had become increasingly common in the U.S., owing to its superior craftsmanship. An oil price hike of 1978 made Americans more interested in more fuel-efficient Japanese cars. But domestic automobile companies, namely Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors blamed Japanese companies as the culprit behind declining work opportunities — a direct result of the losses the inferior car companies incurred in this period. This resulted in anti-Japanese sentiments in the city.
American historian Ronald Takaki noted in 1983 of these sentiments, "in their television commercials and their promotional campaigns to 'Buy American', US automakers have contributed to the racist hysteria pervasive among White American workers and to the proliferation of bumper stickers which read: 'Unemployment made in Japan.'" As ‘Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide’, a book by Joe Darden and Richard Walter Thomas, notes, few auto workers bothered to take the time to investigate the real causes of their plight.
How does Chin’s story fit in? Adding the ominous two and two here is easy enough. On June 19, 1982, 27-year-old Chin was celebrating with friends at his bachelor party at The Fancy Pants Club in Detroit, Michigan, when he encountered two White autoworkers — Chrysler plant supervisor Ronald Ebens and his stepson, laid-off autoworker Michael Nitz.
BREAKING THROUGH-features a story of the campaign for justice for Vincent Chin. @viet_t_nguyen: "The Vincent Chin murder was shocking to a lot of Asian Americans. Not because it represented something new, but that it actually represented something old." @GeetaGandbhir pic.twitter.com/3gI3KCCE13— Renee Tajima-Peña (@rtajima) March 20, 2021
According to witnesses, Ebens allegedly said to Chin, "It's because of you little motherf**kers that we're out of work," which led to a fight. It’s important to remember that Chin was of Chinese descent, as opposed to the Japanese plants that supposedly took American jobs away. Chin was raised in Detroit. His mother, Lily Chin, had come to the United States from China after World War II to marry David Chin, a Chinese-American who fought for the United States during the war. But Ebens and Nitz did not care for any of that.
After they were thrown out of the club, the fight continued. Outside of a McDonald's, Nitz held Chin while Ebens repeatedly struck Chin in the head with a baseball bat. Four days later, on June 23, 1982, Chin died. Following a plea bargain to reduce the second-degree murder charge, Ebens and Nitz were convicted of manslaughter. The two were sentenced by Judge Charles Kaufman to three years probation and ordered to pay $3,780 in fines and court fees. Two civil rights trials and a civil suit followed, but neither Ebens nor Nitz spent a day in jail.
22 years ago EWP opened the world premiere of Cherylene Lee's CARRY THE TIGER TO THE MOUNTAIN - telling the story of the brutal murder of Vincent Chin and his mother's struggle for justice that sparked the APA Civil Rights movement. #EWParchives #EWPhistory pic.twitter.com/jKP1gOvodz— East West Players (@EWPlayers) March 26, 2021
To some White workers like Ebens, it was easier to blame the "racial other" for their plight instead of confronting the self-serving propaganda of the US automakers, noted Darden and Thomas in their book. Takaki observed, "As they cut back production in Detroit and as they close plants in places like Fremont and Milpitas in California, US automakers scapegoat Japan for the misery of American workers, directing the rage and frustration felt by Whites like Ebens toward Japan and away from the structural ills of the auto industry."
“What disturbs me, is that the two men who brutally clubbed Vincent Chin to death in Detroit in 1982 were thinking the same thoughts as the lynch mob in San Francisco Chinatown one hundred years ago: ‘Kill the foreigners to save our jobs! The Chinese must go!’ When corporate heads tell frustrated workers the foreign imports are taking their jobs, then they are acting like an agitator of a lynch mob,” Takaki said.
As anti-Asian hatred in the US reaches a boiling point, there is a need to look back at examples like these to understand how seemingly innocuous phrases like “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” help build a case for xenophobia and otherization. And when that combines with an economic crisis — like the one that faces the US right now because of the pandemic — is it not easy to see how the combination can be more deadly than anything?