Detroit, MI

Remembering Vincent Chin: How one Detroit man's death sparked a powerful movement within the AAPI community

Kristen Walters

Vincent Chin was killed in 1982 simply because he was an Asian American. While his personal story is tragic, his death sparked a massive movement within the AAPI community that forever changed the legal system in the United States.

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Asian Americans have been the victims of discrimination and violence throughout history. Sadly, this anti-Asian sentiment lives on in cities and towns throughout the United States to this day.

From the tragic shootings in Atlanta in 2021 that claimed the lives of four Asian American women to more discrete forms of "normalized racism" experienced in the form of stares and racist comments, Asian Americans have to endure life with an impending sense of fear -- simply because of their Asian history.

Since May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, it is only appropriate to recognize and honor people like Vincent Chin who were forced to give their lives simply because of their Asian heritage.

Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American man who lived in Detroit. In 1982 he was beaten to death by two white men in a nightclub while celebrating his bachelor party with friends.

One of the two perpetrators, Micheal Nitz, had recently been laid off from his job as an autoworker. The second perpetrator, Ronald Ebens, was Nitz's stepfather, a supervisor at the Chrysler plant in Detroit.

When the two men saw Chin in the nightclub, they assumed he was Japanese, even though he was of Chinese descent. The two perpetrators began yelling at Chin, calling him racial slurs, and accusing him of sabotaging the American auto industry.

As the confrontation escalated, the two men began beating Chin with a baseball bat and did not stop until he was unconscious. Chin was taken to the local hospital and died four days later from his injuries. His funeral took place on the same day he was to be married.

Both Nitz and Edens were arrested for the crime. They were initially charged with second-degree murder but later got the charges dropped down to manslaughter and served three years probation.

Neither of the men served any prison time for the crime.

This led to a public outcry within the AAPI community. As a result of the way the American justice system handled Chin's case, several lawyers along with AAPI community leaders formed the activist group American Citizens for Justice.

This group successfully appealed Chin's case to the federal government, which was significant as it was the first federal civil rights trial involving an Asian American in US history.

Following the trial, Ebens was found guilty of violating Chin's civil rights and sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, an appeals court later reversed the conviction due to a legal error. This outcome was traumatizing and disturbing for many members of the AAPI community.

However, thankfully Chin's legacy did not end there.

Due to the apparent failings of the American justice system in Chin's case, a massive movement was created. Dozens of organizations were formed to push for reform, and many lawyers started to fight for change within the legal system.

Eventually, because of the political movement born out of Chin's lack of justice, manslaughter sentencing was changed in Michigan, and victims' families are now allowed to give victim impact statements during sentencing. In addition, prosecutors are now required to be present at sentencing hearings.

While Chin's death made a substantive impact on the legal system, we still have a long way to go as a nation in protecting the rights of the AAPI community.

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