Asian Americans in the United States: An Overview of a Difficult History
As early as the 1800s, the Asian American community faced significant challenges to exercising equal rights in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in U.S. history, denying Chinese Americans basic freedoms on the basis of ethnicity. For the first time, federal law excluded an entire ethnic working group from entering the country. The act was repealed in 1943, and in 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives formally expressed regret for the act.
Just as Chinese Americans were granted these basic freedoms in the 1940s, Japanese Americans lost many of theirs. In 1942, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were denied personal justice as they were involuntarily held in internment camps solely on the basis of their ethnicity. In 1988, the U.S. Congress and President Ronald Reagan issued an apology and paid reparations to Japanese American internment survivors. Apologies from government officials and financial reparations go far in addressing wrongdoings, yet many injustices stand uncorrected.
Unrest, Unemployment and Unease: Racial Tension Festers in Detroit
In the early 1980s, racial tensions were prevalent in Michigan as American auto companies laid off auto workers due to higher fuel costs and increased competition from overseas automakers. Detroit had long been known as the Motor City. Before the oil crisis of 1979, 99 percent of cars in America were manufactured by the “Big 3” U.S. automakers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Competition from Japanese automakers led to a decrease in demand for American cars, which led to lay-offs and cuts. Some unemployed autoworkers blamed their misfortune on Asian Americans.
Vincent Chin: a 30-year Pursuit of Justice
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin prepared to celebrate his wedding, not knowing that his bachelor party would be his last night in consciousness. That night, he was attacked and beaten by two men. Chin was hit with a baseball bat until the perpetrators were taken into custody by two off-duty police officers who witnessed the crime in progress. Chin was taken to the hospital, where he died four days later.
The men who killed Chin were tried in a court where no witnesses were called, and no prosecuting attorney attended. The judge found the men guilty of manslaughter and gave them three years probation, a $3,000 fine and $780 in court fees. Enraged by this lenient sentence, Asian Americans rallied together to decry the lack of punishment for the homicide of a young Chinese man. Asian Americans were moved to speak out together and make their voices heard.
Two weeks after the trial, American Citizens for Justice was formed and began meeting at the restaurant where Chin worked. Chin’s mother, Lily Chin, was one of the founders. Since then, the group has sought justice, having the case tried and retried in several courts. Ronald Ebens, one of the attackers, was cleared of all charges in 1987. To this day, neither killer has served a day in jail or paid the reparations to the Chin family.
The Vincent Chin Case was an important moment for the Asian American community. His tragic story led Asian Americans, diverse in culture and language, to come together and make their voices heard through protests, marches and local news media. Due to public pressure, the Chin case was reopened and the killers tried for civil rights violations. The case was eye-opening, bringing light to the fact that up until that moment the Asian American community had been largely mute and unable to deal with local media that were not adapting to the increasing diversity in the United States. In the Chin case, they raised their voices and made themselves heard.
Historically, Asian Americans have made up less than one percent of the Detroit Metropolitan area population. In 1980, the Asian American population was 0.6 percent of the Detroit population (U.S. Census data). Despite its small size, the Vincent Chin case moved the Asian American community to raise a cry that has reverberated for decades.
The Vincent Chin case has taught us how difficult it can be for communities diverse in culture and language to be heard and heeded by news media. The Chin case brought to light a two-sided problem: Local communities did not know how to speak up, and news outlets did not know how to listen. Chin’s death galvanized Asian Americans to stand up to demand justice. The Vincent Chin case has permanently changed the Asian American community. The public has come to recognize a group of people previously underrepresented in the news media. In 2010, the Michigan Bar Association installed a plaque at the site where American Citizens for Justice held its meetings. The memorial site reminds us of what we stand to lose if we let our voices go unheard.
Getting the Story Right
Many years have passed since the attack and death of Vincent Chin, yet many needed changes remain. Adequate representation in the media is still out of reach for many communities, and many groups lack equal access to American media.
One cornerstone of the Asian American Journalists Association’s (AAJA) mission is to provide the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community with an awareness of news media and an understanding of how to gain equitable access. Toward that goal, AAJA created MediaWatch. MediaWatch holds news media organizations to standards of accuracy and fairness in the coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and AAPI issues. If you know of a news media organization that you believe has strayed from these standards, we encourage you to bring the issue to the attention of MediaWatch.
Additional media watch and media access resources include:
Do you want to know more about Vincent Chin? If you are a college student, you can write an essay and compete for a scholarship.
Read Additional Resources and Articles on the Chin Case
AAJA encourages everyone to pursue a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the violent death of Vincent Chin, its aftermath and this turning point in Asian American history. If we do not study our past and reflect on what we must do today, we risk allowing such injustices to happen again. Below is a small sample of resources for those interested in learning more about the Chin case and the movement it started. There is a wealth of work on this topic, and AAJA strongly encourages everyone to seek out sources beyond this list.
- Yellow: Race in American Beyond Black and White, by Frank H. Wu, Basic Books, ISBN 978-465-00639-7
- Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of Asian American People, by Helen Zia, Farrar Straus Giroux ISBN 0-374-14774-4
- The Killing of Vincent Chin Trial Reenactment Performed at
- Who Killed Vincent Chin? an Academy Award-nominated documentary film, directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña
- Vincent Who? a documentary by Tony Lam, featuring Lily Chin and Helen Zia
- Vincent Chin’s Murderer Still Sorry by Emil Guillermo
- The Man Who Killed Vincent Chin by Michael Moore
- Why Vincent Chin Matters by Frank H. Wu
- 1983 Flashback: The ordeal of Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily Chin from Detroit Free Press
- Killing Spawned Asian American Civil Rights Movement by Roland Hwang in the Michigan Bar Journal
Other Organizations With Information Online