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The Long History of Anti-Asian Racism


The recent slaughter of Asian massage workers in Atlanta has reminded Americans that anti-Asian racism is a huge part of our history. I’ve written a good bit here over the years about how that manifested itself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, today is the anniversary of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, when Americans decided they were too racist to be a colonial power. What I’ve not yet written about in this series is the murder of Vincent Chin by angry racist auto workers in 1982. Kevin Kruse explores this issue and how, just like with the response to these recent murders, authorities simply believed murderous whites when they said it wasn’t about race:

On the night of June 19, 1982, Chin and three friends went to a strip club just outside Detroit. It was meant to be a celebratory bachelor party for Chin, but the night quickly turned ugly. At the Fancy Pants club in Highland Park, two white patrons confronted Chin in the club, pushing him and brandishing a chair. The two white men, workers in an auto industry struggling to compete with thriving Japanese competitors, apparently mistook Chin to be Japanese American and decided to vent their anger. “It’s because of you little motherf—— that we’re out of work!” one witness later recalled one of the men shouted.

The altercation spilled into the parking lot, but Chin soon fled when one of the white men pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk. Chin and a friend sought refuge in the bright lights of a McDonald’s parking lot a few blocks away, but the white men — 42-year-old Ronald Ebens, a foreman at a Chrysler plant, and his 23-year-old stepson, Michael Nitz, a college student with a part-time job — found them there, after nearly 30 minutes searching the neighborhood.

An off-duty police officer, working security inside McDonald’s, saw what happened. First, Nitz chased Chin down in the parking lot, tackling him and pinning his arms. Then his stepfather attacked Chin. “Ebens was standing over him with the baseball bat and was just pounding him in the head,” the policeman later recalled. “He hit him four times. Four times. There was blood coming from everywhere. Out of his ears and everywhere.”

He and another off-duty officer then raced to confront Ebens, pistols drawn, shouting at him until he dropped the bat, a 34-inch Louisville Slugger embossed with the autograph of none other than Jackie Robinson. Chin was rushed to a local hospital, but, his skull crushed, he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

The identity of Chin’s killer was never in doubt. But his motives were deliberately occluded.

Despite the eyewitness accounts of three dancers in the club, who relayed the “motherf——” line to the police and added that the white men had used racial slurs, Ebens and Nitz insisted that their actions that night had no racist motivation whatsoever.

The authorities apparently agreed with them. Prosecutors reduced the charges against Ebens and Nitz from second-degree murder to a plea agreement on the lighter charge of manslaughter. Even that lesser charge still carried with it the potential for 15 years’ imprisonment, but that kind of accountability was swept away at the sentencing hearing.

Wayne County Judge Charles Kaufman listened to the pleas for leniency from the defense lawyers and decided, after a quick five-minute recess, to provide just that. He sentenced the two men to three years’ probation, with no jail time at all. The harshest penalty for the bludgeoning of Vincent Chin came in the form of about $3,700 in fines and court fees. That was all.

Kaufman, a World War II veteran who had spent time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, brushed off accusations of anti-Asian racism and insisted that a light penalty was warranted. “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” he wrote in a letter to the Detroit-area group American Citizens for Justice.

Ugh. This really is America at its very worst.

In a related moment, there were a number of liberals yesterday on the intertubes angry with Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono for saying they would torpedo any white Biden nominees until he starts appointing Asian-Americans to high ranking positions, though they backed down after criticism. The thing about Biden is that he really values having trusted advisers around him, which means that he defaults to a lot of well-known whites, such as choosing Marty Walsh to be Secretary of Labor over Julie Su, giving her the Deputy Secretary job. There are a lot of highly qualified Asian-Americans out there. Kamala Harris being half-Asian does not mean that the administration has covered its Asian quota. As the senators noted yesterday, it would be hugely insulting and unacceptable for the administration to tell the Black community to quit complaining about the lack of Black appointees. The idea of that happening would be so unacceptable for a Democratic administration to be just unthinkable. But this nation’s default of Black-White racial relations means that the concerns and needs of non-Black people of color remain marginalized, including among liberals.

We need to understand stories like Chin’s murder as part and parcel of our racial history. We need to prioritize Asian-American hiring in the upper echelons of our government. We need to focus on stopping anti-Asian violence in the present. All of these things are related to a larger unwillingness to take the long history of Asian presence and anti-Asian discrimination seriously in our society.

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