For many Asian Americans, Vincent Chin’s death was an awakening

With Orlando still fresh in the national consciousness, is there anyone who doesn’t know what constitutes a hate crime?

And yet, when it comes to Asian Americans, America has not always been sure.

That is one of the main lessons of the classic case of Vincent Chin, when the legal system stumbled badly. Chin’s fatal beating, which took place in a Detroit suburb June 19, 1982, was at first thought to be a hate crime, then not. Then a hate crime again, and then on appeal, not.

That public display of non-justice ultimately caused a generation of Asian Americans to rise up for their civil rights.

Not that there wasn’t historical reason piled up on historical reason for Asian Americans to know their tenuous place on the rights continuum. A discriminatory pattern from the Chinese Exclusion, to the Gentleman’s Agreement, the Filipino exclusion of 1934’s Tydings-McDuffie Act, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, was well established. There was more than enough for Asian Americans to stay vigilant.

But the 1980s was the decade after the triumph of civil rights in the ’60s. Add to that the lifting of immigration limits in 1965, and Asian Americans were generally feeling good about their lives in American society. Everyone was feeling good after the disco ’70s. In the early ’80s, Asian Americans were in a kind of lull.

Vincent Chin was our awakening.

And to this day. there has never been any ambivalence that Chin’s death was a hate crime.

Except for the perp, Ronald Ebens.

Four years ago, I interviewed Ebens exclusively on the phone about the night he beat Chin. He insisted to me that it wasn’t about hate.

Here’s an excerpt from that original column:

“It should never have happened,” said Ebens. “And it had nothing to do with the auto industry or Asians or anything else. Never did, never will. I could have cared less about that. That’s the biggest fallacy of the whole thing.”That night at the club, after some harsh words were exchanged, Ebens said Chin stood up and came around to the other side of the stage. “He sucker-punched me and knocked me off my chair. That’s how it started. I didn’t even know he was coming,” Ebens said.

Chin’s friends testified that Ebens made racial remarks, mistaking Chin to be Japanese. And then when Chin got into a shoving match, Ebens threw a chair at him but struck Nitz instead.But Ebens’ version that there was no racial animosity or epithets is actually supported by testimony from Chin’s friend, Jimmy Choi, who apologized to Ebens for Chin’s behavior that included Chin throwing a chair and injuring Nitz.

What about the baseball bat and how Ebens and Nitz followed Chin to a nearby McDonald’s?Ebens said when all parties were asked to leave the strip club, they were out in the street. It’s undisputed that Chin egged Ebens to fight on.

“The first thing he said to me is ‘You want to fight some more?’” Ebens recalled. “Five against two is not good odds,” said Ebens, who declined to fight.

Then later, when Chin and his friends left, Ebens’ stepson went to get a baseball bat from his car.(Ironically, it was a Jackie Robinson model). Ebens said he took it away from Nitz because he didn’t want anyone taking it from him and using it on them.

But then Ebens said his anger got the best of him and he drove with Nitz to find Chin, finally spotting him at the nearby McDonald’s.“That’s how it went down,” Ebens said. “If he hadn’t sucker punched me in the bar…nothing would have ever happened. They forced the issue. And from there after the anger built up, that’s where things went to hell.”

Ebens calls it “the gospel truth.”But he says he’s cautious speaking now because he doesn’t want to be seen as shifting the blame. “I’m as much to blame,” he sadly admitted. “I should’ve been smart enough to just call it a day. After they started to disperse, it was time to get in the car and go home.”

At the McDonald’s where the blow that led to Chin’s death actually occurred, Ebens’ memory is more selective. To this day, he even wonders about hitting Chin with the bat. “I went over that a hundred, maybe 1,000 times in my mind the last 30 years. It doesn’t make sense of any kind that I would swing a bat at his head when my stepson is right behind him. That makes no sense at all.”And then he quickly added, almost wistfully, “I don’t know what happened.”Another time in the interview, he admitted his memory may be deficient. “That was really a traumatic thing, ” he told me about his testimony. “I hardly remember even being on the stand.”

He admitted that everyone had too much to drink that night. But he’s not claiming innocence.

“No,” Ebens said. “I took my shot in court. I pleaded guilty to what I did, regardless of how it occurred or whatever. A kid died, OK. And I feel bad about it. I still do.”Ebens told me he has Asian friends where he lives, though he didn’t indicate if he shares his past with them. When he thinks about Chin, he said no images come to mind.“It just makes me sick to my stomach, that’s all,” he said, thinking about all the lives that were wrecked, both Chin’s and his own.By the end of our conversation, Ebens still wasn’t sure he wanted me to tell his story. “It will only alienate people,” he said. “Why bother? I just want to be left alone and live my life.”

At least, he’s alive.

After the night of June 19, Chin battled for his life for four days, until he finally died of his injuries on June 23.

I’ve always thought these four days should be a special period of remembrance for all Asian Americans to consider what happened to Vincent Chin.

In some ways, it was fitting that this year, the beating day coincided with Father’s Day. Many would consider Chin the father of modern Asian American activism.

And as the anniversary falls on the heels of the Orlando shootings, the stark reminder is still there after all these years.

It all could happen to any of us again.

For the four days when Chin was in a coma from June 19 to June 23, we should all pause and think of his case. And then we should move on refreshed, knowing that for Asian Americans, there’s still much more to be done.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

Read Emil's full bio →