The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
Today, June 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.
Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.
Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.
Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.
Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian- and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.
The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.
As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.
This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.
To complement my earlier post on recent studies on the second generation, another special issue from an academic journal focuses on issues related to social justice and activism among Asian Americans: “Asian American and Pacific Islander Population Struggles for Social Justice” in the journal Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, and World Order (2008-2009, Volume 35 Issue 2):
This issue of Social Justice offers an overview of the struggle for social justice in the United States by Asian and Pacific Islanders, including the factors that shape oppositional consciousness and the possibility for collective action. Authors address Asian American activism in urban communities — particularly traditional Asian ethnic enclaves — around land use, affordable housing, as well as labor and community preservation.
Articles address grass-roots efforts to launch an anti-drug offensive, an environmental justice and leadership skills organization, to develop tools for Muslim women of South Asian descent to fight anti-Islamic sentiment, to confront the marginalization and stereotyping of Asian Americans in popular culture, to critique the racial differentiation of the Asian and Latino immigrant populations, and to expose how the model minority myth reinforces established inequities and places second-generation Asian Americans within a precarious, defensive dilemma in which they must constantly prove their worth as “real” Americans regardless of their legal citizenship status.
Adalberto Aguirre, Jr., and Shoon Lio: “Spaces of Mobilization: The Asian American/Pacific Islander Struggle for Social Justice”
Michael Liu and Kim Geron: “Changing Neighborhood: Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice
Jinah Kim: “Immigrants, Racial Citizens, and the (Multi)Cultural Politics of Neoliberal Los Angeles”
Diane C. Fujino: “Race, Place, Space, and Political Development: Japanese-American Radicalism in the “Pre-Movement” 1960s”
May Fu: “‘Serve the People and You Help Yourself'”: Japanese-American Anti-Drug Organizing in Los Angeles, 1969 to 1972″
Bindi Shah: “The Politics of Race and Education: Second-Generation Laotian Women Campaign for Improved Educational Services”
Etsuko Maruoka: “Wearing ‘Our Sword’: Post-September 11 Activism Among South Asian Muslim Women Student Organizations in New York”
Lisa Sun-Hee Park: “Continuing Significance of the Model Minority Myth: The Second Generation”
Meera E. Deo, Christina Chin, Jenny J. Lee, Noriko Milman, and Nancy Wang Yuen: “Missing in Action: ‘Framing’ Race in Prime-Time Television”
I came across this pretty disturbing news item from California: as reported by AsianWeek magazine, an Indian American was attacked without provocation by two South Lake Tahoe residents and suffered numerous injuries and was hospitalized. Despite witnesses confirming that the assailants yelled racial slurs at him, the prosecutor in the case has declined to file both felony and hate crime charges against the attackers:
In July 2007, Vishal Wadhwa, a 38-year-old Indian American vice president and banker with Citi Private Bank, was attacked by South Lake Tahoe residents Joseph and Georgia Silva on El Dorado Beach in Tahoe.
Racial epithets like “Indian sluts and whores,” “Indian garbage,” “terrorists” and “relatives of Osama bin Laden” were thrown at Wadhwa, who was accompanied by his fiancée and her cousin. Wadhwa asked the Silvas to stop calling them names, but the pair continued. As Wadhwa left to call the police, the Silvas followed him and attacked him in the parking lot.
Wadhwa suffered a broken orbital socket, which will cause dizzy spells for the rest of his life, not to mention the emotional, psychological and physical trauma. Many in the Asian American and legal communities who saw this case as the definition of a hate crime were outraged to learn on July 31 that felony and hate crime charges were dropped against the Silvas.
“If this [case] is not a hate crime, then what is a hate crime?” asked Harmeet K. Dhillon, the South Asian Bar Association’s Civil Rights Committee chair. “If you shout racial epithets and if you break someone’s face based on their ethnicity, it is a hate crime.”
The hate-crime charges have been dropped because racially offensive words by themselves do not constitute a hate crime unless accompanied by a threat of harm because of one’s ethnicity. Racial epithets were used in anger, but Wadhwa was not kicked because of his ethnicity, according to witnesses. The felony charges have been dropped because the attack by the Silvas did not produce “great bodily injury,” since Silva kicked Wadhwa using only her bare foot.
According to the FBI’s website, the legal definition of a hate crime is: “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.”
Based on that definition, I am absolutely astounded as to why anyone would not consider the attack on Mr. Wadhwa to be anything else than a hate crime. First, clearly the attack on Mr, Wadhwa was a criminal offense. Second, it is also pretty clear that the offender was motivated by bias against Indians and those who looked Muslim.
So if this is not a hate crime, exactly what is? Here’s the answer: what this is, is another unfortunate example of how the lives of Asian Americans are systematically marginalized and devalued by American criminal justice officials and institutions.
This tradition of unequal and unjust treatment of Asian Americans has a long history, going back to when Chinese immigrants first came to the U.S. and were subjected to discriminatory taxes, physical attacks, and even murder, but were not allowed to testify against their White attackers, who almost always went free.
This tradition also continued when 120,000 Japanese Americans were stripped of their constitutional rights and imprisoned for nothing more than their Japanese ancestry, an episode that was so egregiously unjust that the U.S. government later officially apologized to those imprisoned, calling the episode “a grave injustice” that resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
This tradition was perhaps best illustrated by the gruesome murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was bludgeoned to death by two unemployed White auto workers who mistook him for Japanese and blamed him for them losing their jobs, and who subsequently got away with murder by paying a $3,700 fine and have never spent a day in jail for their crime.
In the Wadhwa case, I hope Mr. Wadhwa and his family appeal to the FBI to bring federal hate crime charges against their attackers (and also file a civil suit against them for millions of dollars in damages), since the city of Lake Tahoe and the State of California apparently are incapable of delivering justice for him.
As I’ve written about before, incidents of physical violence like this unfortunately seem to be examples of how Americans are expressing their insecurity and backlash over globalization and America’s waning superiority in the 21st century.