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Op-Ed: 35 Years After Vincent Chin, Echoes of the Past Haunt the Future

by Stewart Kwoh and John C. Yang /
Vincent Chin rally
via Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA/Twitter

Fears of global trade and its impact on American workers have gripped certain parts of the United States. Such fears produce a backlash of racial tensions and violence, people shouting hateful slurs at strangers, and many times worse. We have seen this story before — in 1982.

On a June night 35 years ago, insecurities about booming Japanese auto manufacturers, a declining American auto industry, and anti-foreigner rhetoric collided with fatal consequences. Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American, was beaten to death just days before his wedding by two white men who — perceiving Chin to be “foreign” and Japanese — hurled racial slurs at him, trailed him out of a bar, and beat his head open with a baseball bat. Four days later, on June 23, 1982, Chin died.

RELATED: Who Is Vincent Chin? The History and Relevance of a 1982 Killing

The gruesome murder rocked the emerging Asian-American community. And when the killers walked off with a mere $3,000 fine and probation, the travesty of “justice” galvanized Asian American political consciousness. Although Chin's mother Lily never achieved the “Justice for Vincent” she so desperately sought, his tragic death succeeded in uniting for the first time diverse and distinct Asian heritages under the broad national umbrella of “Asian American.” Vincent Chin gave a face to a long history of Asian Americans struggling for civil rights in a nation that historically viewed Asian Americans as a foreign threat.

Scapegoating immigrants for the nation's economic woes is nothing new in America, especially in difficult economic times, whether the immigrants were Irish, Italian, Jewish, Latino, or Asian. Fears that immigration harm American wages and job prospects is as unfounded now as it was 35 years ago, or 135 years ago.

Vincent Chin gave us clarity as Asian-American civil rights activists 35 years ago, and now we must bring those lessons to bear on a new generation of civil rights struggles.

But immigrant communities don’t take away jobs from American workers. Immigrants create new businesses and jobs, purchase goods and services, and pay taxes. They promote more economic growth and push productivity and innovation — a concept the auto industry and other economic sectors had to confront in the 1980s to become relevant players in the marketplace today.

As we remember the 35th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death, the similarities to the present moment are striking. The nationalistic jingoes of today parallel the “Made in America” era of the 1970s and 1980s, which became a pretext for racism. It paints our communities as the enemy, perpetuates unfounded fear, and gives cover to those who spew hate and act in violence. We have seen this far too often in the last six months.

We stood up and spoke out when Vincent Chin was brutally murdered in an act of xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence. His death and the lack of consequences for his killers sparked an Asian-American civil rights movement and inspired both of us in our work today with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the nation’s leading civil rights partnership for Asian Americans.

RELATED: Voices: Who Is Vincent Chin?

Since the November 2016 election, the escalation in hate rhetoric and attacks along with rising trade and military tensions in Asia means Asian Americans must once again be vigilant and stand up for not only our own communities, but others caught in the crosshairs of hate and exclusion. Vincent Chin gave us clarity as Asian-American civil rights activists 35 years ago, and now we must bring those lessons to bear on a new generation of civil rights struggles.

Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, was a young civil rights lawyer at the time of Chin’s death and the only out-of-state co-counsel involved in the case. Kwoh led the successful effort to focus on getting the U.S. Department of Justice to bring a civil rights prosecution on hate crime charges.

John C. Yang is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and the former Senior Advisor for Trade and Strategic Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where his focus was on trade and investments between the U.S. and Asia.