Remembering Vincent Chin: The Passion and Agony of a Community
I don’t know why I didn’t do it this year. Maybe because it’s too painful, and rounded-year anniversaries give us an easy excuse to let it go.
But I couldn’t help noticing this year, as I looked at the calendar and remembered the dates. There’s really no reason why we shouldn’t call for a national period of reflection each and every year.
Asian Americans should always regard June 19 to June 23 as our special period to take the time to ask ourselves some basic questions.
Questions like: What does it mean to be an Asian American today?
What does it take to stand up for a sense of ourselves?
Our personal and public identity?
What does real equality, real justice mean today?
Have we reached that place?
Those are the things worth thinking about now and in the future.
The facts of the Chin case, of course, will always be kicked around. But that’s really not the point of breaking down the agony of Vincent Chin, from the night of June 19th to the 23rd.
That was the period of perhaps the single most influential crime against an Asian American in the United States.
It was the night of Chin’s bachelor party at the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit; the subsequent fight in a nearby McDonald’s that resulted in Ronald Ebens beating Chin with a baseball bat; and then the long wait at the Henry Ford Hospital for Chin either to recover from his deep coma–or to die.
It all happened in 1982, 32 years ago.
Many of us are still scarred by the event and have used it positively to create meaning in our lives.
For some of us, say 40 years old and up, Vincent Chin remains like a line in the sand, a moment when we recognized that being an Asian American was to be born in a constant fight against forces in our society that would strip you of your civil rights.
It was also a reminder that the fight for our rights never ends.
But what does it mean for subsequent generations?
We know that even those who were around back then ask the question, “Vincent Who?”
What more for people under 40?
Are they swayed by the revisionist trivialization that we saw earlier this year when a Detroit News columnist contended that Chin’s death had nothing to do with race?
I laughed at that because the writer didn’t even talk to Chin’s killer.
But I did an exclusive interview with Ronald Ebens two years ago for this blog to mark the 30th anniversary of Chin’s death.
I wanted to talk to him to get a sense of closure.
Vincent Chin and I were both Asian Americans who grew up at the same time.
We were the same age. Even shared a hairstyle.
He was an immigrant though, and I was a native-born son of immigrants.
I was also a member of the Asian American Journalists Association and a young reporter working at the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, KRON-TV, at the time.
If anything, my reporter’s perspective hindered my activism. I stayed super objective whenever discussing the story. Just the facts. My feelings had nothing to do with it. It didn’t matter that the guy looked a lot like me.
It wasn’t until I was an older reporter, even past my days at NPR, that I began to see Chin for what he was for many in the community. More than just a clarion call for justice, he symbolized the struggle of all Asian Americans.
And it wasn’t until I began practicing more personal commentary and opinion journalism in both the ethnic media and the mainstream that I was able to understand that there was a lot more to Chin’s death than a mere recitation of the facts was able to tell.
It’s the reason why I pursued Ebens 30 years after the murder, when others had put it off as old news.
I needed to hear from the murderer. For me.
I’m not an eye-for-an-eye guy. But I am for justice more than I am forgiveness.
I still think Ebens is going through a kind of rationalization process, using selective memory that allows him to live with himself.
I’m not his judge. But after talking to Ebens, I still feel that if Chin were not Asian or a person of color, I think Ebens wouldn’t have felt the rage he did. Nor would he had extended the fight beyond the Fancy Pants into the street, and then later to the McDonald’s. Ebens beating a white guy? He would have seen himself. Not some “other.” He would have stopped. He didn’t.
And to me that’s where discussions of hate crimes become relevant.
There was enough hate present in my legal system.
But we’re past that now. Whether Ebens says it was or wasn’t about race is kind of irrelevant anyway. The facts are the same: Ebens killed an Asian American man. And got away with it. To this day, he continues to claim poverty to avoid the huge wrongful death judgment against him.
The system still works for Ebens. More than it does for any of us.
And that’s why it’s worth it to stop and think about this case. This year. Next year. Every year.
For all Asian Americans, past, present and future, Vincent Chin remains our gut-check.
As a community, we start on the 19th, and on the 23rd, unlike Vincent, we awake.