Remembering Vincent Chin | MSUToday

Artwork by Vincent Chin

On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was brutally assaulted in a hate crime in Highland Park, Michigan. He died on June 23 after being in a coma for four days.

Chin was attacked by two white men, Chrysler plant supervisor Ronald Ebens and his son-in-law, fired auto worker Michael Nitz. They mistook him for a Japanese, blaming him for the economic downfall of the American auto industry.

In the 1980s, there were fears that the Japanese auto industry was overtaking the United States and putting workers out of work. As a result, tensions were unusually high in the Detroit metro.

The trial of the Chin killers was a landmark case as the first hate crime prosecution involving an Asian American. At the time, civil rights laws only applied to African Americans.

Still, the result left the attackers serving no jail time with three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and acquitted of violating Chin’s civil rights.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the legacy of the Chin case that ultimately expanded civil rights laws to include Asian Americans and led to other tidal changes, such as the teaching of the history of Asian Americans in higher education.

Anna Pegler-Gordon

Professor Anna Pegler-Gordon

When Anna Pegler-Gordon, a professor of Asian history and immigration policy at Michigan State University, arrived on campus in 2002, the university did not have an Asian American studies program.

“The brutal murder of Vincent Chin galvanized the Asian American community,” Professor Pegler-Gordon said. “Decades of advocacy by Asian American students, staff, and faculty led to the creation of the Asian-Pacific American Studies program in 2003-2004.”

Pegler-Gordon, who teaches classes at MSU’s James Madison College and is a former director of APA studies, said his students wanted to document the significance of the anniversary to Michigan residents and Detroiters through a project to oral history.

“It was eye-opening to revisit the case at this point in the rise of anti-Asian hatred,” Pegler-Gordon said. “The students were incredibly invested in the story when they realized how much it impacted their lives.”

Throughout the spring semester, students conducted more than 20 interviews with alumni, activists, and members of the working-class community who lived through the case.

Student activist and project participant Justin Fernando contacted Asian American independent filmmaker Renee Tajima Peña for an interview. Peña is the director of the 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1989 and, in 2021, selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.Listen to the interview: Renee Tajima-Pena, click on the Kaltura video player.

For Peña, the film and other media coverage was a way to get justice. She didn’t want to portray the attackers as bad guys. Instead, she sought to emphasize the ordinary nature of racism.

“Ebens had a grievance like the white nationalists who stormed the Capitol on January 6,” Peña said. “The fight for Vincent Chin is a fight against anti-Asian violence in America.”

When senior Anthony Ajluni interviewed his mother, Ellen Ha Ajluni, he discovered that his family was part of the story without realizing it first. Her mother took an active role in seeking justice for Chin, which made her realize that Asian Americans can have a voice.

“Even though others may decide to treat me as a second citizen, I can demand to be treated as an equal,” E. Ajluni said.

Listen to the interview: Ellen Ha Ajluni, click on the Kaltura video player.

David Tran holding print

Recent graduate David Tran holds a copy of the book “What Kind of Justice” which contains excerpts from Vincent Chin’s Oral History Project.

David Tran, a recent graduate, interviewed Senator Stephanie Chang, the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Michigan Legislative Assembly. He learned how a community could be the scapegoat for situations beyond its control.

Chang studied the historical trial when she was in high school.

“Vincent Chin’s murder still resonates because of the rising hatred we’ve seen against the Asian American community across the country due to the coronavirus,” Chang said. “It’s really important that we continue to think about what this case means.”

Listen to the interview: Senator Stephanie Chang, click on the Kaltura video player.

Chin was born on May 18, 1955. He would have turned 67 this year.

The top banner image is a photo of students in the Vincent Chin Heritage Room at Holden Hall.

Pegler-Gordon students present excerpts from the project in a book, released during National Asian Desi Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. In the coming months, the interviews will be publicly available on the Humanities Commons site.