With Chin on one side and Ebens and Nitz on the other, the brawl escalated. After the group was kicked out of the club, the fight continued and Ebens and Nitz eventually chased Chin down outside of a nearby McDonald’s. With the help of Nitz, Ebens beat him over the head with a baseball bat again and again.
Four days later, Chin died.
Still, Chin’s case paved the way for subtler changes around hate crimes, sentencing guidelines and victims’ rights. And it brought Asian Americans of varied backgrounds together under one movement.
“If we couldn’t bring justice to Vincent Chin, we had to make sure that his legacy — what we had learned and what we had fought for — didn’t go away,” said Helen Zia, an activist and former journalist who is now the executor of the Vincent and Lily Chin estate.
Asian Americans fought for accountability
When the time came for sentencing on March 16, 1983, the two men and their defense attorneys were the only ones standing before the judge in the courtroom, Yoo writes.
It also wasn’t standard practice for judges to hear from victims’ families during sentencing. So no one informed Chin’s mother, Lily Chin, about the hearing.
Nor did the judge hear from any of Chin’s friends, who were there that night, or other witnesses who recounted what they saw to police, according to Yoo.
“It was a complete failure of the criminal justice system,” Zia said.
When the news reached Chin’s mother and the rest of the Asian American community in Detroit, it was met with outrage. To them, the racial implications were clear.
“It’s almost as if an Asian life is not worth anything,” said Jim Shimoura, another lawyer in Michigan who worked alongside others to raise awareness about Chin’s case. “Had roles been reversed, we’ve always speculated what would have happened if the victim was White and the killer was Asian. Would that Asian person walk away out of court free? Absolutely not.”
In the immediate aftermath, the local Asian American community banded together to protest the judge’s sentence of probation. Zia, Lily Chin, Hwang, Shimoura and other activists formed an organization called American Citizens for Justice that would fight to persuade the judge to reconsider his decision.
In their own examination of the case, they found that police had not interviewed key witnesses, including the dancer who remembered Ebens saying, “It’s because of you little motherf****** that we’re out of work.” That account suggested to the community that Vincent Chin’s race might have played a factor in his killing.
They sought to put a name to the violence
Yoo told CNN in an earlier interview that the issue of race was key.
“There was one question at the heart of the trial: Was this a racially motivated hate crime or was this just a tragic case of a bar brawl with too much toxic masculinity and alcohol gone awry?” she said.
The defense maintained that it was the latter, arguing that Chin’s race was not a factor that led to his killing. A jury in Detroit, however, ruled otherwise.
“It was heartbreaking,” Zia said. “It was a travesty of justice. It was seeing all the effort that we had put, years of getting the word out, just reversed.”
Zia said it was clear to her and other activists who had long worked on Chin’s case that the jury in the second trial didn’t have an understanding of the racism that Asian Americans in Detroit faced in the 1980s. Because there wasn’t concrete evidence that Ebens had used an identifiable racial slur, his actions weren’t seen by the jury as racially motivated, she said — despite the fact that a witness remembered him blaming Chin for the loss of auto jobs.
Chin’s killing and the final outcome became emblematic of the racism and discrimination that Asian Americans in the US endured — too often unrecognized, even when the community understood it to be otherwise.
“That’s the standard that Asian Americans face right now,” Zia added. “If you don’t call somebody a name that White people recognize as a racial slur, it’s not racist.”
The Chin estate does not accept his apology, Zia said.
The case did lead to some changes
The verdict would shake many Asian Americans’ faith in the US justice system.
Annie Tan, a cousin of Vincent Chin’s and an activist and educator in New York, said that the final outcome was traumatizing for her relatives. After Chin’s killers were ultimately acquitted of federal charges, her family stopped talking about the case at all, she said.
“I think that has probably changed the ways my family thinks about America and about the ways we can succeed and be here,” she said.
But Tan knows that her cousin’s story paved the way for change. Friends have told her that Chin’s case inspired them to enter activism, law or politics. Zia said she could see the difference that her work and that of other activists had made, too.
“It wasn’t all for naught,” Zia added. “A whole movement had been created, organizations formed … there were new generations of Asian Americans who were becoming civil rights lawyers because of this case.”
Chin’s name became a rallying cry, helping lead to legal reforms that made it easier for other victims to seek justice.
“Victims’ impact statements weren’t the typical manner of the day,” Hwang said. “Since then, we’ve had — probably in part because of this case — an opportunity for victims’ families to give testimony with respect to the life of the victim and the impact on the family.”
Because of Chin’s case, Asian American leaders began tracking hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at a time when such data was hard to come by. His name was often invoked in the fight for stronger federal hate crime legislation, and represented a turning point in the Asian American movement.
“There were positive impacts from our movement and from the legacy of Vincent Chin that affected every American and still affects every American today,” Zia said.
But activists still see a long way to go
It was a reminder that many of the same challenges remained.
“The kind of dynamics that drove people to kill Vincent Chin in 1982 are still existent now almost 40 years later,” Shimoura said.
Today, like they did nearly four decades ago, Asian Americans are coming together again to speak out against the hate and violence experienced by their communities.
Because all they can do, Shimoura said, is keep fighting.
CNN’s “History Refocused” series features surprising and personal stories from America’s past to bring depth to conflicts still raging today.