On June 19, 1982, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin went with friends to a strip club in Detroit to celebrate his upcoming wedding. That night, two white men who apparently thought Chin was Japanese beat him to death. At the killers’ trial, the men each received a $3,000 fine and zero prison time. The light sentencing sparked national outrage and fueled a movement for pan-Asian American rights.
Chin was born in China’s Guangdong province and grew up in Detroit with his adoptive Chinese American parents. By the summer of 1982, he was 27 years old and working in computer graphics, and his hometown—once known as an automotive manufacturing capital—was in decline. Many U.S. autoworkers blamed this decline on Japanese car manufacturers.
On the night Chin went out with his friends, 43-year-old Chrysler foreman Ronald Ebens and his 22-year-old stepson Michael Nitz, who’d lost his job at Chrysler, were also at the club. According to testimony, a dispute started between the groups of men over a stripper. A dancer at the club later recalled Ebens shouting at Chin, “It’s because of you motherf***ers that we’re out of work.”
After the scuffle moved outside, Ebens grabbed a baseball bat from his car and began chasing Chin, who ran away. Ebens and Nitz then drove around for about 20 minutes looking for Chin. When they found him, Nitz held Chin while Ebens beat him to death with the baseball bat. Chin died in the hospital four days later from his injuries.
Light Sentencing Triggers Outrage
Though the murder didn’t make the national news that summer, it deeply affected Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans in Detroit. Curtis Chin, producer of the 2009 documentary, Vincent Who?: The Murder of a Chinese-American Man, was 12 years old at the time. He describes Vincent Chin as a family friend, and says some of his relatives were in Vincent Chin’s wedding party.
“It only became a big story after the judgement,” he says, referring to Ebens and Nitz’s trial several months later. “It was a local story before then. And obviously within the Chinese American community and the Asian American community, it was already a big story… People were very concerned about it, very scared.” If it could happen to Chin, it could happen to anyone of Asian descent.
On March 16, 1983, Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman ruled the murder was the outcome of no more than a barroom brawl and found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. They each received a $3,000 fine, $780 in court costs and three years’ probation. Neither received any prison time.
“These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” Kaufman said in defense of the sentences. “We’re talking here about a man who’s held down a responsible job for 17 or 18 years, and his son is employed and is a part-time student. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime, you make the punishment fit the criminal.”
Kin Yee, president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council, argued the sentences amounted to “a license to kill for $3,000, provided you have a steady job or are a student and the victim is Chinese.”
Activists Fight for Federal Civil Rights Case
Unlike Chin’s murder, Ebens and Nitz’s sentences made the national news, sparking protests across the country. Although there were some instances of pan-Asian American activism before Vincent Chin, his murder marked a turning point for Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and other communities who hadn’t previously thought of themselves as “Asian Americans” with common interests.
“People knew from personal experience that we were lumped together [by non-Asian Americans],” says Helen Zia, a Chinese American journalist who participated in civil rights activism in Detroit after Chin’s murder trial. “But in terms of identifying as pan-Asian, the key thing was that a man was killed because [his murderers thought] he looked like a different ethnicity.” Not only that, “his murderers got off on probation—in other words, scot-free.”
“It did really galvanize the anger,” says Christine Choy, a film professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and co-director of Who Killed Vincent Chin? And since the 1965 Hart-Celler Act had lifted longstanding restrictions on Asian immigration, by 1983 there was now a larger population of people who could identify with the new pan-Asian American community and protest violations of their civil rights.
Two weeks after Ebens and Nitz’s sentencing, Zia and other activists in Detroit formed a pan-Asian American civil rights organization called American Citizens for Justice, or ACJ. Over the next few months, ACJ and other groups around the country protested the sentencing and petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Vincent Chin’s murder as a civil rights violation—which it did.
“It was the first time Asian Americans were protected in a federal civil rights prosecution,” says Renee Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American studies at UCLA and co-director of Who Killed Vincent Chin? “Before that, Asian Americans were seen as not being a protected class.”
In 1984, the U.S. District Court sentenced Ebens to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights. Ebens appealed and received a retrial that cleared him of all charges in 1987. Also in 1987, Ebens and Nitz settled a civil suit out of court. Nitz was ordered to pay $50,000 to the Chin estate over the following 10 years, which he did. Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million, which grew to an estimate $8 million as it went unpaid and accumulated interest for decades.