Who is Vincent Chin? The Case That Changed Asian American History
with Helen Zia
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit, during a time of intense anti-Asian hate.
Forty years since the murder of Vincent Chin, civil rights activist, author, and journalist Helen Zia joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss how this racially motivated hate crime fueled a national movement for Asian American rights and justice.
June 17, 2022
Anderson: On June 19th, 1982, Chinese-American Vincent Chin and his friends were out to celebrate his bachelor party in Detroit. That's when two white men brutally beat him to death with a baseball bat. It was a time of intense anti-Asian hate in the country, specifically tied to the recession impacting autoworkers. His killers never spent a single night in jail and were instead fined just $3,000 each. This light sentence angered Vincent Chin's family, and all of it mobilized the Asian-American community to stand up, speak out, and fight for their civil rights. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The racially-charged murder of Chin happened 40 years ago. Some say it sparked an Asian-American civil rights movement united around equal justice and human dignity. And out of that, a new organization was born that proved how diverse communities can work together to end racial discrimination. Spearheading that movement was Helen Zia, and she's here to talk to us about all of it. Helen, thank you so much for being here.
Zia: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.
Anderson: 40 years after Chin's death, we're still talking about the prevalence of Asian hate. How far have we really come, in your mind?
Zia: Well, Tetiana, I'm sorry to say that it actually feels like we've gone full circle and we're back to where we were in 1982 in terms of anti-Asian hate. As you pointed out, Vincent Chin was killed at a time when there was incredible, constant Japan-bashing and anybody who looked Japanese. And that's what led to the killing of Vincent Chin. He was on his bachelor party, and two white autoworkers saw him and said, "It's because of you mother Fs that we're out of work." By the way, they weren't out of work. And here we are today, in 2022, and it's not Japan that's being bashed, it's China.
Anderson: His death paved the way for some pretty significant changes in the Asian-American community. In Michigan, you were at the center of a lot of those changes. Talk to us about what your role was.
Zia: So as a young journalist then, I knew how to write, tell stories, help pull together press conferences. And for the Asian-American community, back then, we were small -- much smaller than today. There are 24 million Asian-Americans today. Back then, it was minuscule. And in places like Michigan, we really felt like we were -- we were treated like we were aliens from Mars, not that we were Americans. And there were many of us who are part of this movement trying to tell our stories, trying to reach out and say, "You know what? Asian-Americans have been Americans for a very long time, and we deserve to be not treated like second-class Americans, but treated just with the full dignity, humanity that every other American should deserve." You know, liberty and justice for all, and we stood up to say we should be included in that, and that none of us should be killed or attacked because of how we look. And so we came together, and I was part of that, bringing Asian-Americans together first, and then reaching out to the Black community in Detroit, the Arab-American community, all of the different, you know, interfaith, multi-faith groups, people from all walks of life. We reached out to and they rose to stand up with us. Anderson: There was a lot of unity that came about as a result of Vincent Chin's death, but there was also some pretty significant legal changes in the state of Michigan as well. Talk to us about those. Zia: So one of the things that happens when people come together to address a problem is that it doesn't just stop at one problem. You know, we came together over the tragedy of Vincent Chin and the injustice that happened then, but it continued to reach other people as well. Vincent Chin's family was never given an opportunity to speak up at the sentencing. Prosecutors weren't even there. And so out of that came an effort to say victims should have a chance to speak up when somebody has harmed them and a sentence is happening. Anderson: In 1982, when Vincent Chin was killed, I was living an hour and a half away or so. I was just a kid, but I didn't hear about his story then, and quite frankly, I didn't hear about it until now. Why don't we know Vincent Chin's name like we know George Floyd's name? Zia: Unfortunately, even today, Asian Americans are treated as though we are largely invisible to American society. Kids do not grow up, through K through 12 or not even going through universities knowing a single thing about Asian-Americans, except maybe that they did something for a railroad. And that has to change. I have to say that more Americans have cellphones and things like that. That's one of the reasons we know about George Floyd and the terrible murder that that took place in Minnesota then. I wonder how many George Floyds there were in this country back in the 1980s that we didn't hear about. But so, that's what it's going to take -- for bystanders, for people who just think what they see in front of them is wrong to stand up and say, "We have to do better than this." Anderson: You're an activist. There are people who are already standing up for causes they believe in. What do you say to them and what advice do you have for those who are thinking of doing the same thing? Zia: Well, for people who are already standing up, I just have to say, I salute you. That is what it's going to take, because it's a democracy. We have to speak up, and that's how our voices get heard. Nothing's going to change if we do nothing. And for people who are just thinking, should I get involved? The answer is yes. Because if you don't, you're part of the problem. And there are many ways to speak up. You don't have to be out there with a picket sign or a megaphone. You know, you can send an e-mail to your legislator, to be part of reaching out to your elected officials, letting your company know that you think there are ways to make it safer for people going to and from work or to your school board, to say, "The kids, they're going to be walking to school. How can we make it safe for them?" All of these things take people just coming together -- not just by yourself, coming together with other people and making a difference that way. Anderson: And Helen, if people want to find out more about Vincent Chin's story, where should they go? Zia: Thank you, Tetiana. They can go to VincentChin.org. That's where the information about some of this history, some of the lessons, what we can all do, as well as information about the 40th commemoration of what happened to Vincent Chin, and the legacy of what people did in coming together to make our communities safer for all of us. VincentChin.org. Anderson: Helen Zia, thank you so much for being here. Zia: Thank you, Tetiana. It was my honor. Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit ComcastNewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.