The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin went out in Highland Park, Michigan for his bachelor party. He was set to get married nine days later, but never made it to the altar. That night, he was assaulted in a racist attack and died four days later.
Chin, who was 27, was attacked by two white men, Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler plant supervisor, and his stepson Michael Nitz, a laid-off autoworker. At that time in the 1980s, the United States was in an economic recession, and the automotive industry—largely located in nearby Detroit—in particular was impacted by the growing competition from Japanese auto imports.
The altercation started at the Fancy Pants Club, where Chin and his friends were celebrating his upcoming nuptials before they encountered Ebens and Nitz. After seeing Chin tip one of the dancers generously, one dancer named Racine Colwell said Ebens yelled, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” Things escalated from there, turning into a physical brawl until the men were all kicked out of the club. The fight continued outside, with Ebens and Nitz chasing Chin for half an hour and finally tracking him down at a nearby McDonald’s. With Nitz holding Chin down, Ebens beat Chin over the head again and again with a baseball bat, according to CNN.
After four days in a coma, Chin died on June 23, 1982 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
A miscarriage of justice
As if Chin’s murder weren’t bad enough, Ebens and Nitz never spent a night in jail. They were arrested and released the night of the attack. The two men were also initially charged with second-degree murder, but accepted a plea bargain to reduce the charges to manslaughter. And despite legal proceedings at the state and federal levels, in the end, when they were sentenced on March 16, 1983, they only received three years probation and $3,780 in fines.
In explaining his sentence, judge Charles Kaufman said, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail...You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”
But he only had Ebens’, Nitz’s, and their lawyers’ word for what types of criminals they were.
This is because back then, it was routine for Wayne County prosecutors to miss sentencing hearings, since they weren’t considered crucial to the legal proceedings, according to CNN. As a result, no one was in attendance to present the state’s case against Ebens and Nitz. It also wasn’t standard for judges to hear from victims’ families during sentencing, so no one let Chin’s mother, Lily, know about the hearing. Kaufman also never heard from any of Chin’s friends or other witnesses who were there that night. The judge only knew what the defendants told him— that Chin initiated the fight and Ebens and Nitz just reacted in the heat of the moment.
So, in addition to the hate crime that ended Chin’s life, justice was never served as a result of a failure in the American criminal justice system.
A beautiful legacy from a tragic event
This injustice unsurprisingly left Asian Americans outraged, but it also galvanized the community, with folks coming together to take action, going a long way in helping form and shape the Asian American identity. Prior to Chin’s murder, there really wasn’t an Asian American political identity, but after his death, author Min Jin Lee tells PBS NewsHour that people “felt like we need to become more politically important and powerful.”
As a result, the killers’ light sentencing led to the founding of the AA+PI civil rights advocacy organization American Citizens for Justice. Chin’s case also sparked the Asian American civil rights movement, as many AA+PIs became civil rights lawyers and went into activism as a result, Chin’s cousin Annie Tan tells CNN.
“That’s a beautiful legacy of a very tragic event,” Lee says.
Published on June 22, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.
Art by Vivian Lai
Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.