When Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man from the Detroit area, was beaten to death with a baseball bat after being pursued by two white autoworkers in 1982, it horrified and mobilized Asian Americans.
Chin was killed at a time when the rise of Japanese carmakers and the collapse of Detroit’s auto industry had contributed to a rise in anti-Asian racism. Over time, his death began to fade from collective memory.
With the 40th anniversary of the killing approaching this month, at a time of an alarming surge in anti-Asian violence, a younger group of Asian Americans has sought to bring attention to the case, along with some of those who led the fight to seek justice for Chin.
They say it's not just an issue of the legacy of one man, but painful lessons about prejudice that have been made more urgent by the coronavirus pandemic, the breakdown in U.S.-China relations and the spate of anti-Asian hate crimes over the past two years, reports the New York Times.
“As bad as things were during the auto crisis, we didn’t have these mass assaults on Asians all over the country,” said James Shimoura, a lawyer, Detroit native and Japanese American who volunteered on the Chin case in the 1980s. “It’s worse now. It’s absolutely worse now than it was 40 years ago.”
Asian Americans have been living in increased fear of racism and physical violence since COVID-19 was first detected in China two and a half years ago. President Trump and others repeatedly used terms like “kung flu” and “Chinese virus” to describe the pathogen. That language, Asian American leaders said, emboldened some people to act out hatefully, echoing the climate at the time of Chin’s killing.
“People see the parallels of scapegoating an ethnic group or an entire racial group for something that is clearly not actually due to that group, whether it was the struggling auto industry in the ’80s or the coronavirus now,” said Stephanie Chang, the first Asian American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature.
Unlike in some other cities, there is no one center of the Asian population in Metro Detroit. “Asian Americans in Michigan have a very different experience than Asian Americans on the coasts,” said Jungsoo Ahn, a native of the Detroit suburbs who is Korean American, and who leads Rising Voices, which works to mobilize Asian voters. “In other states, you’re able to create a sort of pan-Asian identity, whereas because of the sprawl and geography here, and the various waves of immigration, it’s been harder to form that.”
A study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found a two hundred twenty four percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 in a sampling of large U.S. cities. Attacks on spa workers in the Atlanta area, many of whom were Asian, shocked the country last year. In New York City, police made 58 arrests and recorded 131 bias incidents against Asians in 2021; high-profile attacks have continued this year.