May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Is everybody AAPI?
Perhaps not, especially if we are forced to revisit the Vincent Chin murder reinterpreted by someone who is not Asian and was not a direct participant in any of the events of June 19, 1982.
But it happened this week, and it serves as a reminder that the Chin case remains the seminal story of transgression against Asian Americans in U.S. history. It’s the story that unites us and provides a political umbrella that coalesces Asian ethnicities into one strong Asian American voice.
We don’t all look alike or sound alike, and in some cases, we don’t even like each other. But we do have common interests based on our Asian identities.
And when it comes to Vincent Chin, we are one. Surely, when the going gets tough and the target is Asians, the xenophobes will come after us indiscriminately.
It’s the “seen one, seen them all mentality” that still exists in American society, and it has always been part of the Vincent Chin story.
That’s why it’s galling when a Detroit News columnist named Neal Rubin brings up the Chin story–but with a twist. Without providing any new facts, he feels it important to debunk what he feels has become an urban myth: that Chin was killed because he was a Chinese person mistaken for a Japanese person.
Two unemployed autoworkers beat Vincent Chin to death because they thought he was Japanese and they drunkenly decided he had cost them their jobs.
That’s an accepted piece of history, like Ty Cobb being the worst racist in baseball or Henry Ford boosting his workers’ daily wage to $5 so they could buy his cars.
It popped up again last week in the New York Times, in a piece about the mob attack on tree trimmer Steve Utash: “I remember two out-of-work white autoworkers in 1982,” the article says, “beating a Chinese-American man to death because they thought he was Japanese.
But Rubin offers up nothing new. He doesn’t interview any principals in the matter who can credibly counter the “urban myth” he feels must be debunked.
His source was a reporter turned journalism professor who covered the trial. And Rubin chooses to discredit the testimony of a stripper, but not because her statements were baseless, but because he can sex up his column by saying she entered the courtroom bottomless.
End result: Nothing is proven. Rubin writes a column in a lame attempt to diminish the hate behind the murder of Chin. And in doing so, he has drawn the ire of many Asian Americans.
Attorney Stewart Kwoh, who served on the legal team of the Chin family through American Citizens for Justice, issued a statement. He sees the column as looking to debunk not just an “urban myth,” but “the prevailing view that the case was a race-motivated hate crime.“ Kwoh said if he were called by the columnist:
I would have been able to tell him that our investigations identified a number of dancers who witnessed the racial epithets, all of whom provided testimony that was used in the first federal civil rights trial. (Rubin’s article names only one dancer.) Their accounts, as well as other eyewitnesses’, also indicated that Chin’s killers exhibited aggressively violent behavior, both inside and outside the bar. Rubin’s claim that Chin was the aggressor (“Outside, Chin attempted to prolong the fight”) is therefore hard to believe.
Rubin’s column might have been worthy of the ink had he talked to the confessed killer of Chin, Ronald Ebens.
But I write that column two years ago exclusively for the AALDEF blog.
After 30 years, I wanted to come to terms with the killing myself, and why Chin was dead but Ebens was free.
In my exclusive interview, Ebens told me he was sorry. But he downplayed the race angle. Here’s an excerpt:
“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 [Ebens’ stepson] 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.
Do I believe the apologies of Jimmy Choi? I’ll go with the majority, Chin’s friends, and the other dancers to whom Kwoh alludes.
Rubin’s column doesn’t do any of that. It merely tries to say the beating was all about rage, not race.
But how can it not be about race?
Between Reagan’s Cold War and the incursion of Japanese automakers into the American market, our society was ripe with xenophobia. I doubt many people in Detroit at the time could tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Japanese person. Nor were people keen on making any distinction in an “us vs. them” world. Asians were Asians. Foreigners were foreigners.
Did it fuel the rage on the night of Chin’s beating? Something did. What if you substituted a white person as the victim for Chin–would Ebens have stopped and walked away? Or did the fact that Chin was Asian such an embarrassing affront to Ebens that beating Chin to death was the only salve to his severely bruised ego?
Here’s what Ebens told me :
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.
The story on the AALDEF blog is one of the few places where Ebens has talked in recent years. He didn’t answer my call this time around.
The Asian American Journalists Association is demanding a retraction from the Detroit News for the Rubin column. But the real error on the paper’s part was not presenting a fuller examination, giving us instead a shallow column that only succeeds in trivializing Vincent Chin’s murder.
Even if we take Ebens at his word that race had nothing to do with anything, what does it prove? His denial doesn’t change things. You cannot de-raceinate this crime. Ebens murdered an Asian American with a baseball bat. Period.
During Asian American Pacific Islander Month, we all need to be reminded that Vincent Chin’s death is major part of our Asian American heritage and part of American history.
Make no mistake–the race aspects of the Vincent Chin murder are real, and not some urban myth.