The 1987 documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, tells the tragic story of the murder of 27 year old Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan. Chin’s alleged murderers, Ronald Eber, and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were two white, unemployed auto plant workers who had both recently been laid off from their jobs due to downsizing. Eber and Nitz apparently blamed the recent influx of Japanese automakers into the United States for their unemployment situation, and mistook Chin, who was a Chinese immigrant, as being of Japanese ethnicity. The two men, both intoxicated, beat Chin to death with a baseball bat, all the while shouting anti-Japanese racial epithets. While in the mid-1980’s, there were no “hate crime” statutes at either the Federal or state level, the murder of Chin has widely been described as the nation’s first “hate crime.” Neither Eber nor Nitz knew Chin prior to crossing paths with him on that fateful night in Detroit, and Chin’s East Asian racial background appears to have been the sole motive behind Eber and Nitz’ attack.
The charges were eventually dropped against Nitz, as Eber was the one who was witnessed swinging the baseball bat, and Eber was eventually set free, with only three years’ probation. Eber apparently had an outstanding legal team, who was able to discredit eyewitnesses to the murder on the stand, and they additionally argued that as Eber was drunk, he could not be held fully liable for his violent acts. The trial, and the light punishments that Chin’s murderers received, set off a firestorm of fury and political activism in the Asian-American community in the United States. Due to political pressure from Asian-American activist groups, Chin’s case went to the United States Supreme Court as a civil rights case, but unfortunately this was not enough to obtain proper justice for Vincent Chin and his survivors. However, Chin’s murder helped bring about hate crime legislation, and is credited with starting a pan-Asian social justice movement in the United States.
As the documentary mentioned several times, and as the Ancheta reading also brought up, the fact that Chin was Asian may have been a barrier to more aggressive prosecution of his murder as a hate crime. Even today, race-based hate crimes are strongly associated with victims of African-American, Jewish, or Latino background, and some wrongly find it implausible that individuals of East Asian racial background could be victimized in such a brutal way. After all, East Asians are widely called a “model minority,” meaning that they are often associated with material and social success, high socio-economic status, and high educational attainment. Many mistakenly consider East Asians to be immune from the worst, most violent aspects of racism that plague our national culture, and were Chin to be murdered today, the prosecutors for his case might have difficulty convincing even a 2015 jury that his murder constitutes a “hate crime.”
As the Ancheta reading mentions, East Asians and Southeast Asian immigrants to the United States have historically been idealized, and even granted an “honorary white” racial status. Asians are often stereotyped as highly intelligent, socially conservative, and exceptionally hard-working. In fact, many universities now place quotas limiting the number of applicants of East Asian descent who can be admitted each year, as it is thought that they are overly privileged and have too many competitive advantages in the college admissions rat race. For an East Asian individual, be they of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other background, to be the victim of racist oppression and violent hate crimes in this country is, on its face, unfathomable to many people.
However, this idealization of Americans of East Asian ancestry is in itself a form of racism. As the murder of Vincent Chin, as well as the relative nonchalance of the jurors in his murder trial, shows, East Asians remain an ethnic minority in this nation who are subject to the same discriminatory actions as are members of historically “underprivileged” racial minority groups. Further, the idealization of East Asians presents a barrier to equality in and of itself. Many East Asian college students report that they believe their university professors unconsciously hold them to higher standards of academic performance than their white peers in the classroom. Being East Asian does not necessarily mean that a person is automatically highly intelligent, so when an Asian individual of middling intelligence enters a college classroom and requires the same level of assistance with complicated topics as one of their Caucasian or African-American classmates, they may find themselves being unfairly judged as being “lazy,” or “overly needy.”
Indeed, the hyper-idealization of East Asians in the United States seems to have played a role in the murder of Vincent Chin in the 1980’s. Ronald Eber and Michael Nitz clearly believed themselves to be disadvantaged individuals who had been victimized by intelligent, predatory East Asian capitalists who had succeeded in destroying their jobs and their livelihoods. The violence exhibited by Ronald Eber and Michael Nitz was clearly at the extreme end of a spectrum of hatred, but they were emblematic of a larger problem afoot in American society. Whenever there is an economic downturn, people often look for scapegoats, and they often target members of ethnic groups different from their own whom they feel have received unfair advantages. East Asians are among these groups, and they are as subject to discrimination based on their race just as much as any other minority.