Vincent Chin case a traumatic memory of judicial inaction, discrimination

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Illustration by Aaron Logan

As he lay dying in the arms of his friend, Vincent Chin uttered his last words: “It isn’t fair.” He was right.

On June 23, 1982, a 27 year-old Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin passed away in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. Four days prior, on the evening of June 19, Chin was out celebrating his upcoming wedding with three friends (two of whom were white). At the bar, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz confronted Chin. The incident ended with the two bludgeoning Chin four times in the head with a baseball bat, cracking open his skull and leaving him comatose. They later said it was a simple bar brawl.

The men responsible for his murder pled guilty to manslaughter but still managed to get away almost entirely scot-free, serving three years of probation and paying over $3,000 in fines. The judge presiding over the case, Charles S. Kaufman, rationalized his sentencing by maintaining that the two were upstanding, employed citizens of the community, saying, “You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal,” according to an article on apimovement.com.

The conclusion of this case is heartbreaking and disgusting, but it is just one of many examples of racist practices in our country. This hate crime serves as proof that discrimination based on race was very much alive during this era — decades after the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

Had two Asian-Americans assaulted and killed a white man, the sentence would have been entirely different. However, because the victim was a man of color and his assailants were Caucasian, the intentional murder of a human being was swept under the rug with hardly a slap on the wrist. Sadly, if this case were to take place again nowadays, I think the outcome would be almost identical.

In the 1980s, Asian-Americans were at the heart of the engineering forces in the United States’ automobile industry, leaving many people bitter about their own personal lack of employment. This was reported as the motivating factor behind the brawl that lead to Chin’s demise, with one of his attackers (both of whom were autoworkers) shouting, “It’s because of you motherf—ers that we’re out of work!”

I’ve always believed that the U.S. is a bit ethnocentric. Our population often feels that we’re the best at just about everything, and we have a hard time swallowing the idea that someone could come onto “our” territory and do “our” jobs better. Of course, looking at U.S. history, the “our” in question tends to be the well-off white, heterosexual males who have always been portrayed as the heart of our nation. This power structure is extremely problematic for those outside of the “norm,” and as a Chinese-American man, Chin was undoubtedly a victim of it.

After Chin’s brutal death in 1982, Asian-American advocacy groups across the nation decided enough was enough. Organizations like the Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, among others, unified to protest the unjust ruling on Chin’s case and were able to get it appealed and retried. The men were sentenced to pay financial damages to Chin’s family to help compensate for what his income as a mechanical engineer would have been — money that Lily Chin, Vincent’s mother, still hadn’t received when she died.

I had never personally heard of any of these Asian-American advocacy organizations. Chalk it up to a small-town, sheltered childhood, but I didn’t know that groups like this even existed. We’re all extremely familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. and African-American civil rights groups, and we’ve probably at least heard of the Chicano Movement to support Mexican-American rights. Why is there a lack of awareness regarding the Asian-American population and its endeavors?

Perhaps it’s because the U.S. has never fully identified the Asian population as a group in need of assistance. After all, they’ve never been enslaved or forced to do unsightly jobs, so how bad could it really be, right?

Vincent Chin’s case speaks a different story. Harassment, bullying and hate crimes committed against Asian-Americans are hardly new, and we’d be kidding ourselves if we tried to pretend they weren’t still happening today. But why is this group specifically targeted?

Ehtnocentrism may, yet again, be the cause. On average, Asian-American males make $963 per week while Caucasian-American males make about $839, according to jobs.aol.com. Is it possible that the white population in the U.S. is so threatened by this statistic that it has reverted to bullying its way back to the top?

While I have no evidence to support this claim, it is something to consider. The general lack of awareness surrounding the Asian-American community is enough to make one wonder about the nuts and bolts of our power structure and why it works the way it does. I sincerely hope that one day, justice will no longer be determined by ethnicity.

Kaitlyn Dewell is a junior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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