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The Case Against Vincent Chin

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The Vincent Chin case is in the news again. It is the same story. And it makes me mad again.

The basic outline of the Chin case is beyond doubt. In June 1982, in Detroit, Michigan, an individual named Vincent Chin was enjoying his bachelor's party. He encountered two other gentlemen, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, a father and stepson, at a strip club. Before the evening was over, Chin had had his head cracked open by Ebens swinging a baseball bat after Nitz had shoved him down.

Blood, spinal fluid, and cerebral matter pooling on the pavement as he crumpled, Chin reportedly uttered the last words, "It's not fair." The guests who would have attended his wedding went to his funeral instead.

The context likewise is without dispute. The recession was as severe as experienced recently, except that the collapse of the domestic marketplace was coupled with the economic miracle of the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan. The Motor City has long been called that because everyone there was dependent on automobile manufacturing, which was uniquely affected by the influx of imports. Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American aspiring to become a draftsman; Ebens and Nitz, white autoworkers.

The issue is not what happened but why. The framing is now, as it was then, whether the episode was a hate crime or a bar brawl.

Perhaps it is worth pausing to point out that Ebens and Nitz never once contradicted they had done what they did. They could hardly have contested it, since dozens of people were present at the scene.

Witnesses said that Ebens and Nitz used racial terms. The prosecutors referred to "chink," "jap" and the now forgotten "nip."

The crucial line, above all, was "it's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work."

The implication was that Chin -- Chinese, not Japanese, and a citizen, not a foreigner -- was somehow associated with Tokyo, blamed for the popularity of Toyota. It was mistaken identity twice over.

A stripper heard someone, either Ebens or Nitz, shout that accusation at Chin. She had no particular stake in the events; for those who are wondering, she happened to be white. The effort to discredit her after the fact is so sleazy it's contemptible: It is repeated that she came to the courthouse for the trial sans panties.

Ebens admitted he called people "motherfucker" from time to time, adding he didn't mean anything by it. He denied that he was a racist or would even consider using slurs.

Other witnesses reported that Ebens and Nitz referenced another of Chin's friends after they weren't able to capture him, saying they should get the other motherfucker instead. They explained how Ebens and Nitz recruited a bystander and paid him to help catch the "Chinaman," saying they planned to "bust some heads."

The evidence was overwhelming. Ebens and Nitz took a plea deal.

The court criminal dockets in Wayne County were so crowded -- Detroit being the murder capital of the nation in those days -- that the government had a standard operating procedure of not showing up for sentencing in such cases. The judge, being told this had been nothing more than another drunken altercation that exceeded the expectations for such affairs, sentenced the defendants to probation for three years and a fine of $3,000 each.

No single incident involving an Asian American had aroused such anger before, and none has since. The community organized to form American Citizens for Justice. The name was deliberate. It was meant to signal these individuals, immigrant and native-born alike, were members of the body politic, equals within this diverse democracy. (They agreed: Signs and leaflets had to be in English only; nothing in Chinese.)

American Citizens for Justice attracted the support of many others, such as the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. People were shocked that the perpetrators who had committed murder would face no meaningful punishment. Vincent's mother (his father, an Army veteran, having passed away of natural causes a few months earlier) became a regular guest on local television, inconsolable in her grief.

The United States Department of Justice was persuaded to open an independent investigation. They ultimately brought charges.

The feds had a significant challenge. Because of the Constitutional Double Jeopardy clause, which prevents a person from being charged for the same crime twice, they had to prove not the act constituting homicide but the intent that would make it a civil rights offense, that it had been carried out to deprive the deceased of the use of a place of public accommodation on account of his race. In technical legal terms, the actus rea being conceded, the mens rea was the deciding point.

My own opinion, recognizing that that is all it can be since I was not there (and it would be conjecture even if were present), is that we make a mistake as we often do with the framing. It is not, and should not be, a choice between "hate crime" and "bar brawl." The alternative, both more true to the facts and the judgments that might be applied, is whether it arguably could be both. To acquiesce to the proposition that Ebens and Nitz were not hardcore bigots, looking to put to death anyone Asian that night, is not to endorse that they were innocent.

While I can accept the conclusion that the hate crime was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, I cannot abide the conclusion that the bar brawl was proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I am undone by the certainty with which some observers advance that hypothesis. I wonder what compels them to rally to this particular cause.

For a better sense of how the defense of the two killers turns morality upside down, there could be no better example than the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Ebens against Chrysler. A foreman at a manufacturing plant, he was released after he was convicted. He turned around and sued, on the allegation that he had been treated improperly since there wasn't a policy about firing felons. He presented himself as aggrieved, the subject of employment discrimination. (His cause of action was dismissed.)

Or consider the argument that defense counsel presented to the federal court of appeals. It seems preposterous. Yet they actually averred that "Orientals" were not entitled to any protection of the civil rights statutes. They contended that only African Americans were covered. (They are incorrect on this as on so much else, as is possible only through assumptions. The historical record discloses numerous references to "Orientals," specifically Chinese, during the discussion of the earliest civil rights legislation.)

Meanwhile, Ebens defaulted on the wrongful death claim brought by Chin's estate. The judgment remains outstanding, accumulating interest.

The state judge who presided over the case showed his lack of remorse with his remarks. He rationalized that the defendants were decent men who had families and jobs. They would not likely do this again. He later commented that Asian Americans should be grateful. He had brought them together.

The most troubling aspect of prejudice against Asian Americans is the categorical denial that there is any such problem. It arises because Asian Americans are taken for granted to be perpetual foreigners who lack standing to complain since they are doing better here than they are in what is assigned to them as their homeland, or since Asian Americans appear to be "the model minority" who are "overachievers" (meaning perhaps they have more success than they deserve). In Detroit, it also is the perfunctory consequence of the terrible divisions along a black-white axis; unsurprisingly, you are simply excluded if you cannot be forced into a black-white paradigm.

The Chin case brings together all these factors. Look: If someone who is bludgeoned to death cannot be deemed to have had his civil rights denied, then I suppose nobody who is Asian American ever will be able to prevail on such a claim.

Let me be clear. I am the first to acknowledge -- indeed, to assert -- that the Chin case is complex. None of us can peer into a person's mind or heart. We cannot ever be certain about motivations, even our own.

The fact that Chin himself was no saint makes the narrative all the more, not less, compelling. He could not have been more all-American. He was assimilated. He liked the strip club milieu as much as his attackers. He enjoyed a drink. He was a hothead. All of that means that he was someone who, as their lawyers suggested, was very much like those who took his life in every respect except the most significant -- skin color.

But that is exactly why the Chin case continues to haunt Asian Americans. It is archetypal. I am less anxious about the threat from the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads than I am the possibility that an ordinary guy across the bar, with economic unease and too much booze, turn outs to be savage enough for violence.

Ebens avowed throughout that he "just snapped." If you believe his testimony, you are committed to the notion that Chin, for no apparent reason whatsoever, while celebrating his upcoming wedding, came over to two guys and sucker punched one of them for the heck of it.

To the extent that people of any background want to hold onto such an understanding of the world, in order to deny that an Asian American could conceivably have been the victim of racism, we have far worse of a problem than I would have thought. Social scientists have demonstrated the stark dichotomy, literally and figuratively black and white, in how we perceive racial matters. This is the Asian American version.

All of us yearn for justice, an assurance that the universe operates according to principles we hold dear. The Chin case violates our shared hope. Each time another article appears about Chin himself being the guilty party, it reinscribes the original transgression on our collective memory.

We have, then, a cooperative choice. We could acknowledge that a wrong was done and try to put it right at a minimum in what we tell the next generation. Or we could disregard the facts to insist all has always been well and remains so.