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Why Vincent Chin matters today, 40 years after his death


Forty years ago this weekend, a killing started a movement. Helen Zia remembers opening the newspaper in Detroit and seeing a story about a Chinese American man who had been beaten to death with a baseball bat.

HELEN ZIA: What jumped out at me was the picture that accompanied that story. It was a beautiful couple, an Asian man and an Asian woman, about to be married. And back then, in the 1980s, you never saw an article or a picture about Asians in America. We were so invisible.

SHAPIRO: The victim was Vincent Chin. The two white men who killed him were autoworkers. Witnesses say they used racial slurs and blamed the Japanese auto industry for lost jobs, even though Chin's heritage was Chinese. Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were sentenced to three years' probation and fined $3,000. These events galvanized a generation of Asian American activists to fight for civil rights, including Helen Zia.

ZIA: 1980s Detroit was a time of great suffering, misery, pain for everybody because it was a time of industrial collapse. It was called the restructuring of the American economy, which previous to that had been based on manufacturing. In a city like Detroit, which was, you know, Motor City, cars were king. Industry had collapsed. People were out of work.

SHAPIRO: And do you recall a sense, even before this killing, that Asian Americans were being scapegoated for that?

ZIA: Well before the killing of Vincent Chin, Asian Americans in Detroit were already feeling like we had to look over our shoulders. People who drove Japanese-made cars, if they weren't Asian, they were already - they were getting shot at on the freeway.

SHAPIRO: Getting shot at - not shouted at - shot at.

ZIA: Oh - shot at for driving a Japanese-made car. And if you had an Asian face, the last thing you wanted to be doing was, you know, doubly associated with the enemy that was being defined by the heads of the auto companies. And different representatives from all over the country were basically blaming Japan for the collapse of the manufacturing sector. And that drumbeat had been going on for quite some time before the killing of Vincent Chin. It was all an effort to blame somebody else for the problems of America.

SHAPIRO: When you describe these powerful people pointing the fingers at an Asian country, I can't help but think of a couple of years ago when then-President Donald Trump blamed China for the coronavirus.

ZIA: Absolutely. The similarities are chilling. The pattern is chilling. A pandemic that's going around the world, that's causing global economic troubles, and now we're seeing that impact continue - that was what was going on in America in the 1980s. And that's why as soon as that callout in the White House was pointing the fingers at China, everybody Asian American knew that that was going to land very hard on Asians in America. So, yes, the rhetoric, the innuendo - it has its impact. And when people are targeted and scapegoated, we know that that's only going to be bad for every American.

SHAPIRO: What you're saying echoes another detail of the Vincent Chin killing, which is he was Chinese American, and yet his killers were angry about the role that they perceived Japan playing in the auto industry. What does that tell you about the way Asian Americans are perceived in this country?

ZIA: Asian Americans have always been lumped together, even though Asia is the largest continent on the planet. And so when people have hate or anger directed at some nebulous thing about Asia, it doesn't matter. If you're Asian, you're a target. And that's what's going on today. Every different ethnicity of Asian American has suffered the hate incidents that are going on today.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think the Chin case matters 40 years later?

ZIA: The Vincent Chin case matters today because it really stands out as a landmark, not only for Asian Americans - it stands out as a landmark in American history. It's a time when a people in America, who were treated as though they were aliens - those people stood up and said, this is wrong. And not only that - we are a part of the American democracy, and we deserve to be treated as full Americans and full human beings. And so if we can hold on to that and see how we are all connected with each other, to connect the dots and to say - you know what? - what happened then might have started with Asian Americans, but it has an impact on all Americans. That is why the Vincent Chin story is so important today.

SHAPIRO: That's author, journalist and activist Helen Zia. Thank you for speaking with us.

ZIA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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