Our history by Monica Chen

The IC Asian American Alliance, a student organization at Ithaca College, recently shared a video on Facebook about Vincent Chin. The video, which was originally posted on NBC Asian America’s Facebook page on May 18, 2016—what would have been Vincent Chin’s sixty-first birthday—asked a group of Asian Americans what they knew about Vincent Chin.

While a few people knew who he was and his story, there were also a few who did not know and had not heard of him. This speaks volumes about the education system in the United States, and specifically, the erasure of Asian American history. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American living in Highland Park, Michigan who was murdered on the evening of his bachelor party by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. Ebens and Nitz assumed that Chin was Japanese and blamed him and “his people” for the layoffs that were occurring in Detroit’s automotive industry, which was tied to the growing success of the Japanese automotive industry, and they beat him with a baseball bat. Chin died four days later in the hospital.

Ebens and Nitz were originally charged with second-degree murder, but were ultimately convicted of manslaughter, which consisted of no jail time, three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs. One of the interviewees in the NBC video mentions that they would have received a more severe punishment if they had killed a dog. After hearing of this verdict, many members of the Asian American community in Detroit spoke out against the injustice. Helen Zia, a journalist, and Liza Chan, a lawyer, came together as leaders for a civil rights charge against Ebens and Nitz on two counts for violating Chin’s civil rights, since the attack was motivated by Chin’s race, ethnicity, and national origin. In 1984, Ebens was convicted of the second count and sentenced to twenty five years in prison, though his conviction was overturned in 1986 and he was acquitted in 1987. A civil suit was then settled out of court in 1987 for the unlawful death of Vincent Chin, in which Nitz had to pay $50,000 and Ebens had to pay $1.5 million.

Chin’s murder and the subsequent court cases highlight the importance of public pressure against instances of injustice. His story and the lack of awareness around his history show that there has been a clear erasure of many acts of injustice against Asian American communities. Not only is Asian American history ignored and silenced within the general public, but also within many Asian American communities themselves. It is important for us to know our history, to know how our communities have been affected by acts of injustice and also to know how people before us have stood against this discrimination and hate.

This is why I find the work that we are doing as a part of the Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival so important. The festival brings to light Asian American stories. And while not all of the films detail the specific history of certain Asian and Asian American communities in the United States, the historical context is still there. That history is ever-present in our lives, in the privileges we have and the struggles we face as Asian Americans today.

And even in thinking about Asian American history and specifically Vincent Chin and his place in Asian American history, we need to consider the countless others who have faced injustice, who have been killed, attacked, and mistreated as a result of their racial, gender, religious, and sexual identities. This is especially poignant in our current climate, where we see rampant xenophobia, racism, and sexism in our country and around the world. Especially seeing as March is Women’s History Month, we think of the Asian American women, along with women of all other racial categories, and the ways in which their lives, their stories, and their struggles have been erased from history. It is important that we continue to endeavor to give a voice to the communities who have had theirs taken away, to not forget those who have sacrificed, who have fought, who have lost, and who have died as we continue to fight for our rights and the rights of others.

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