Thirty-two years ago this week, Vincent Chin lay crumpled on the streets just outside Detroit and uttered these last words, “It’s not fair”. He died from injuries suffered after two disgruntled, white autoworkers beat him mercilessly wielding a baseball bat.
On that fateful June 23rd night in 1982, Chin and his friends were celebrating his bachelor party at a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan. An argument ensued between Chin and Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler plant supervisor along with his unemployed stepson Michael Nitz. Witnesses said Ebens instigated the incident by shouting, "It's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work!”, a reference to the anti-Japanese sentiment of the time amidst high unemployment, inflation, and Detroit’s economic paralysis as American car manufacturing jobs were being lost to Japan. It’s reported Ebens and his stepson Nitz also used the racial terms “chink”, “jap”, and “nip” in this deadly bar brawl.
Later in court, both men reached a plea agreement and had their murder charge dropped to manslaughter. They were eventually sentenced to three years probation and fined $3000. Neither spent one day behind bars and their fine was less than the maximum for killing a dog.
Asian-Americans across the country were mortified by the outcome and consequently Vincent Chin’s death became the catalyst and rallying cry for the modern day Asian-American civil rights movement. For more than three decades, the facts to that story remained largely undisputed. But now, thirty-two years after Chin’s tragic death, white journalists are telling the world race played no role in the baseball bat beating death of the 27-year-old Chinese-American.
Neil Rubin of the Detroit News recently wrote a column critical of the focus on race. In his column Rubin cites Tim Kiska, a journalism professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who said, “The story makes all the sense in the world…but it didn’t happen that way.” With this one “source” Rubin seeks to rewrite history in an attempt to paint this crime as simply a bar fight gone awry with race as a non-factor.
In the column, Rubin portrays Chin as the angry, drunk (Chin’s blood alcohol content was .14) instigator of the fight, “An argument broke out between the groups over a lap dance. Chin threw the first punch. Also thrown: a chair. All were ejected from the club. Outside, Chin attempted to prolong the fight. Outnumbered, Ebens and Nitz declined…”
In addition, Rubin highlighted his concern for the prostitute’s veracity who testified to hearing one of the racial slurs. “Her testimony is the source for what’s now accepted as the truth.” But witnesses also heard Ebens and Nitz hurling racial epithets at Chin, such as “chink,” “jap,” and “nip”, yet Rubin conveniently leaves this significant fact out of his column.
Rubin did concede and acknowledge that the period of the early ‘80’s was a tumultuous time in America fraught with high unemployment, inflation, and hysterical panic and fury against Japanese automakers.
“The early ’80s was an angry time, with Japanese car companies thriving while the Big Three stumbled. A bar Downriver bought a sledgehammer and a junked Toyota, and people lined up to take their whacks.” Despite the nationalistic attitude enveloping Motown, Rubin refused to believe there was any possibility Chin’s murder had ties to race based solely on Ebens’ denials.
So was this a pure hate crime motivated just by the color of Chin’s skin? It’s difficult to say this was 100% exclusively so. But it’s an affront to the Asian-American community to say race played no role. For myself, I don’t think racial hatred started the fight as much as it did to fuel the mixture of alcohol, animosity, and economic woes that eventually lead to Vincent Chin’s murder.
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