Before I came to Michigan for graduate school, the only thing I knew about Michigan was that it was where Vincent Chin was killed. My parents’ Japanese-American neighbors warned me to sell my father’s Toyota 4Runner and buy a Ford Bronco. I asked about safety as much as I did about academics before I decided to come.
This year marks the 29th anniversary of the baseball bat beating that caused the death of Vincent Chin. Unfortunately, with the recession and rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, the case is even more relevant than ever.
Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese-American raised in Metro Detroit. A week before his wedding, June 19, 1982, he went to the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park with a few buddies for his bachelor’s party. There, they encountered two autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who, like many at the time, blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s troubles. Even though Chin was not Japanese and worked in the auto industry himself as a draftsman, Ebens was heard saying, “It’s because of you little m—f—s that we’re out of work,” as well as other anti-Asian racial epithets.
The men were thrown out of the bar, and the fight continued in the parking lot and into the night. Ebens and Nitz searched for Chin and his friends, and upon finding them, Nitz held Chin in a bear hug while Ebens struck Chin’s head four times with a baseball bat, cracking his skull. Vincent Chin died four days later. His wedding guests attended his funeral instead.
On March 18, 1983, Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced Ebens and Nitz to three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine, saying, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” This was followed by a federal civil rights trial and a civil suit. To this day, neither Ebens nor Nitz has spent a single day in jail.
Such a light sentence for such a vicious crime was a shocking wake-up call for Asian-Americans of all ethnicities who suddenly realized the brutal consequences of the “all Asians look alike” stereotype and anti-Asian slurs. Coming to America, working hard, and keeping your head down per the model minority stereotype was not enough. This could have happened to anyone.
In 2009, the State Bar of Michigan designated the Vincent Chin case as the 34th Michigan Legal Milestone. This case is credited with giving birth to the Asian-American civil rights movement and the victims rights movement. Many legal developments came out of this case that benefit all of us, including the practice of prosecutors attending sentencing hearings, victims and their families making a victim’s impact statement at sentencing, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, understanding the sensitive nature of changing venues, the importance of the media, and the formation of Asian-American civil rights organizations.
Outgoing Mayor of Ferndale, Michigan, Craig Covey, who also installed an accompanying Vincent Chin memorial plaque by the City of Ferndale, recognized the struggles for equality throughout American history by “almost every group that has made this place home,” including Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Irish Americans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, gays and lesbians. He continued:
“Equal justice in America is not a given. It is not a guarantee… rather… it is a constant struggle. It takes vigilance and effort and energy. We must always strive toward fair and equal justice, knowing that it may never be fully achieved.”