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This Day in Labor History: June 19, 1982

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On June 19, 1982, two Chrysler workers, a plant supervisor named Ronald Ebens and his laid-off stepson Michael Nitz, beat a Chinese-American draftsmen named Vincent Chin to death in the parking lot of a strip club in Highland Park, Michigan. This was the peak of the anti-Asian racism that accompanied the decline in auto employment and the rise of Japanese imports, something that the American labor fully engaged in and which some unions are happy to continue to exploit today.

Chin was born in Guangdong Province in 1955. He was placed in an orphanage. His adopted father was Chinese-American, giving him the right to bring a Chinese child into the U.S., and adopted the boy in 1961. He grew up in the Detroit suburbs, got a job as an industrial draftsman for an auto supplier, and made money on the side working weekends at a Chinese restaurant. In 1982, he was about to be married to his long-time girlfriend Vikki Wong and as per stupid men, had his bachelor party at a local strip club.

Evidently, the fight started when a woman was dancing for Chin and the whites made some remark about it. According to Ebens, later interviewed by Michael Moore (really?) about the incident, Chin said, “Don’t pay any attention to those little fuckers, they wouldn’t know a good dancer if they’d seen one.” Eyewitnesses later said that Ebens stated, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” They started fighting on the floor and were kicked out.

Of course Chin was not Japanese. He was Chinese. But when did that stop idiot white people? In the mid-90s, maybe 1993 or so, my grandparents came to visit us in Oregon. We went out to a Chinese restaurant. When we went in, some angry customers were leaving, unhappy with the service or something. One of them shouted, “You’d better remember who won the war!” at them. Again, this was a Chinese restaurant. So the idiocy of Ebens and Nitz is not only not shocking, it’s entirely expected. Since when did whites know the difference between Chinese or Japanese or Koreans? Or between Muslims and Sikhs when whites were committing acts of anti-Asian violence after 9/11? Or between Mexicans and Guatemalans? Part of being white is the fundamental ignorance of other cultures, with all the privilege and violent backing of it that entails.

Little of this really had to do with Chin saying something to a white guy at a strip club. If Chin was white, they would not have beaten him to death. But Chin was not white. See, here’s the thing: American cars of the 1970s were absolutely garbage. Without any competition, the auto industry never bothered to do things like make quality cars. For Ford, Chrysler, and GM, it was always 1957. There was no competition and everyone loved tinkering with cars that started falling apart a few years after they were purchased. But what they didn’t understand for a long time is that lots of people don’t like any of this. They wanted quality cars that ran without having to think about it. The oil crisis made this all the more salient. So did American foreign policy that consistently prioritized the needs of foreign trade allies over American unions. And so, as the 1970s went on, German and Japanese cars flooded the American market. People liked them. They bought them. And they stopped buying the poorly performing American cars. It really took until the 1990s for the American auto makers to figure any of this out.

But as employers would discover in any number of circumstances, including environmental protection, workers–even union workers who had very tense and sometimes violent relationships with supervisors on the shop floor–identified with their employers. And when things went sour, these workers were more than happy to fight culture wars with a perceived enemy, regardless of the actual merit, over turning on their employers for creating the situation where they found themselves. We still see this today with Trump’s appeal to some formerly Democratic voting industrial workers in critical states.

Usually, unions moderate white workers’ racism. But in this case, the United Auto Workers was responding to the rise of Japanese imports by taking sledgehammers to Japanese cars as a protest movement of sorts and a quite pointless and counterproductive one. This was also the era of the rising Japanese economy, when anti-Japanese racism became incredibly common throughout the media and American society in general. Let’s be clear how open this was. At the Six Flags Auto World park in Flint, there was a poster at an exhibit on the auto industry that showed a Japanese stereotype reaching back to the vile and racist World War II propaganda dropping bombs on an aircraft carrier that read “Detroit.” This was in 1984, two years after Chin was killed. Bumper stickers proliferated around the country that read “Unemployment: Made in Japan.” Buy American campaigns by the automakers and other employers were explicitly xenophobic. This was the same kind of anti-Asian xenophobia from American workers that had led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan, the decision by Americans to give up colonialism rather than allow for Filipino workers to enter the U.S., and many other horrible moments in American history.

And so these assholes saw Vincent Chin again. Nitz needed stiches after the fight. Ebens was driving his son-in-law to the hospital. Chin and his friends were in the parking lot of the local McDonald’s. Ebens saw them and decided to get his revenge. He and Nitz were disgusted by his presence at the strip club. And when Chin stood up for himself, they started shouting racial epithets at him, and then beat him to death in the parking lot with a baseball bat, with Ebens taking the lead. Everyone was drunk, of course. Ebens just bashed Chin’s head in repeatedly.

Ebens and Nitz were charged with second-degree murder. Civil rights charges were not filed, evidently because of the drinking and general idiocy on both sides. Two off-duty cops witnessed the beatings. They were inside the McDonald’s, rushed out, and showed their badges, but Ebens didn’t stop. By this point, Chin had fled into the road. One of the cops later told a newspaper reporter that Ebens “was just pounding him in the head like he was hitting a golf ball.” They arrested Ebens. But no one took the killing very seriously. These were just good white boys having a bad night. They pleaded down to manslaughter, got no jail time, and had to pay $3,000 in fines. The judge, Charles Kaufman, stated, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.” Remember, they had beaten a man to death based on his race.

The nation’s Asian-American community was furious at the verdict. Finally, after intensive lobbying, the government filed civil rights charges against Ebens and Nitz. A 1984 case found Nitz innocent, but Ebens guilty and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, he would only serve about 2 years. The verdict was thrown out after it an improper prosecution contact with a witness was revealed. The 1987 retrial saw Ebens acquitted. The only justice Chin’s family received was a lien on the income of Ebens and Nitz for the rest of their working lives, though not touching their Social Security.

Today, we live in another wave of anti-Asian violence, this time in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and Donald Trump’s ginning up of xenophobia to promote his own power, something that millions of Americans are happy to support and reinforce. We need organized labor to take the lead in fighting this. In 1982, the UAW and other unions definitely did not cause the murder of Vincent Chin. But by playing into anti-Asian rhetoric, they helped create the atmosphere for such actions.

This is the 398th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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