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The Murder of Vincent Chin and How It Changed America

1980s | July 15, 2021

Lillie Chin (mother of Vincent Chin, who was clubbed to death by two white men in June 1982) breaks down as a relative (left) helps her walk while leaving Detroit’s City County Building in April 1983. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

On June 19, 1982, a young man named Vincent Chin was celebrating his bachelor party at Detroit's Fancy Pants strip club along with several of his friends when he overheard a group of men harassing his table's dancer. This led to a confrontation between Chin and the men, Robin Ebens and Michael Nitz, who shouted, "It's because of you little motherf---ers that we're out of work," referring to their recent layoffs as autoworkers. Auto manufacturing was the backbone of the Detroit economy, and many in the area blamed the rise of the Japanese auto industry for flagging sales of American cars. Ebens and Nitz likely made the comment believing that Chin was of Japanese descent, though he was, in fact, Chinese-American.

According to eyewitnesses, the men directed several racial slurs at Chin during the confrontation, and a fistfight broke out. After Chin subdued the pair, the bachelor party decided to leave the club to avoid further violence, but Ebens and Nitz weren't finished. Humiliated and angry, they collected a baseball bat from the back of their vehicle and drove around town, looking for Chin and his friends, until eventually spotting them at a McDonald's. They jumped Chin in the parking lot, where Nitz held his arms back while Ebens bashed him in the head with the bat, knocking him out and causing major brain damage. The men were quickly arrested, and Chin died four days later at the hospital, never having regained consciousness.

Vincent Chin. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

It seemed like a pretty open-and-shut murder case, considering several bystanders (one of whom was a cop) witnessed the attack, so many were shocked by its legal aftermath. Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second-degree murder but made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to the significantly lesser charge of manslaughter. Even more shocking was their punishment: a $3,000 fine and probation. This angered many but especially the Asian-American community, who called the lenient punishment a "$3,000 license to kill" people of Asian descent. When questioned about it, Judge Charles Kaufman simply stated that "these weren't the kind of men you send to prison."

Unfortunately, this was far from the first time the murder of an Asian victim went unpunished in the United States. In 1885 Wyoming, a white mob attacked Chinese miners, accusing them of "stealing" their jobs, eerily echoing Ebens's comments to Chin. The mob attacked the Chinatown district and killed 28 men in what came to be known as the Rock Springs Massacre. Although 22 assailants were arrested for the bloodbath, the all-white grand jury refused to indict, so no one was convicted of the murders.

1885 riot and massacre of Chinese-American coal miners, by white miners. From Harper's Weekly: Harper's Weekly, Vol. 29. (The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley/Wikimedia Commons)

In Chin's case, the federal court tried to step in, insisting that because the crime was at least partially motivated by race, it constituted a civil rights issue. They convicted Ebens and sentenced him to 25 years, but he successfully appealed on the basis of possible witness coaching. Neither man ever served a single day in prison.

Although justice was not served for Chin's murder, the ensuing outrage and protests strengthened the Asian-American identity and has been cited as a motivation for many Asian-American lawmakers to go into politics. The case highlighted what many believed to be weak spots in the Michigan legal system, which has since seen changes to how prosecutors work in court and manslaughter charges are sentenced. In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded 1969 hate crime laws and strengthened the local court's ability to prosecute such crimes.

Tags: 1980s | murder | racism

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