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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Rosie Zhou: From Vincent Chin to Atlanta

By Rosie Zhou

The night I heard the news about the shootings at three massage parlors in Atlanta that led to eight innocent people being killed – six of them being women of Asian descent – I felt numb.

That numbness became mixed with anger the next day when I saw all the news articles that portrayed the murderer empathetically and the video of the Cherokee County police officer explaining that the murderer “was pretty much fed up, at the end of his rope and this was a very bad day for him,” as if to justify the deed.

It is saddening and infuriating that in today’s America, a white man can intentionally take the lives of Asian women and have his actions explained away because of “a bad day.” He may have claimed that his motives were not racial, but the reality is that six Asian women are dead now because of his actions. His murders speak louder than his words. The incident itself, subsequent humanization of the murderer, and law enforcement’s minimization of the gravity of the shootings recalls the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982.

  • Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American man living in Detroit. On June 19, 1982, when out with his friends at a strip club for his bachelor party, he was confronted by two white men, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz. The two blamed their recent layoffs from Chrysler on the rise in Japanese auto imports to the United States. Assuming that Vincent was Japanese, they started a fight with him. Ebens shouted, “It’s because of you … that we’re out of work.” Eventually, the fight moved outside, and Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent. Nitz held him down, while Ebens beat him with a baseball bat. Lily Chen, Vincent’s mother, said in an interview, “They killed my son like they killed an animal.” Four days later, on June 23, Chin died in the hospital from his injuries. His wedding had been set for June 28.

The subsequent ruling of the murder by Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman was what catalyzed a movement. Ebens and Nitz received no more than a $3,000 fine and three years’ probation. In defense of his sentences, Judge Kaufman said, “These aren’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.”

Following the ruling, Asian ethnic communities from across the country united in protest under a newly developed pan-Asian identity. Lily Chen began to speak at community gatherings, protests and rallies, demanding justice for her son and gaining support and solidarity from Black leaders like Jesse Jackson. In 1984, a federal civil rights case found Ebens guilty, but was later overturned in a 1986 appeal. Nitz was acquitted in both trials. The two never served a day in jail for Chin’s murder.

Last month, I spoke to several U.S. history classes at my school. When I asked who had heard of the name Vincent Chin, not a single person responded. I was shocked and saddened that no one knew the story of Vincent, who had been killed with a baseball bat because of the color of his skin, only to have his death erased from history textbooks and unknown by future generations.

Anti-Asian rhetoric and racism is not a new problem as a result of COVID-19; in fact, it is centuries old. Events like the Page Act of 1875, Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, massacres of Chinese Americans in Wyoming, Oregon and Los Angeles, forced removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the murder of Vincent Chin all show that Asian Americans have faced racism since they arrived here. But these events are often unknown. Why? Because the education system does not teach us about them.

Growing up, I rarely ever heard Asian American history mentioned at school. It seemed as if the role Asian Americans have played in this nation’s history was either erased from the pages of my textbooks and the minds of the entire education system as a whole or reduced to single sentences about Chinese workers building the Transcontinental Railroad or Japanese Americans in internment camps.

So now I pose the question – will the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta be erased from history textbooks 39 years from now like the murder of Chin was erased from mine? Will future generations be unaware of the racism that Asian Americans have faced historically, like students are unaware now? Will more Asian Americans die from racist violence only to be forgotten and unknown by future generations?

To ensure we don’t answer “yes” to these questions, we must ensure that Asian American history is taught in schools. We must include the experiences of Asian Americans in our teachings about American history. We must teach students about the racist policies, ideologies and acts of violence that have been waged against Asian Americans. We must teach about the creation of the model minority myth and how it is harmful not only toward AAPI communities, but other minority communities. We must teach about the solidarity between Asian Americans and other minorities, especially the Black community, and Asian Americans’ struggles for collective liberation. We must teach about Asian American activists like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, who organized alongside Black activists for racial, economic and environmental justice. We must ensure that our youth fully understand and appreciate all of the contributions that Asian Americans have made to this country.

Only then can we ensure that 39 years from now, students know the names Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Sun Cha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue and Daoyou Feng, like students today should know the name Vincent Chin. Only then can we ensure that no more of our Asian American brothers and sisters are taken from us because of racist ideologies and systems. Only then can we dismantle the myth of the model minority. And only then will we be able to say that we did not let all those Asian Americans who have been killed by racist violence die in vain.

Rosie Zhou is a senior at Ferris High School and a local student activist and leader. She helped to organize the Stop Asian Hate Vigil in Spokane. She is a Hub Coordinator of Sunrise Spokane, the Vice President of the Ferris Black Student Union, and a Student Ambassador for the League of Women Voters of the Spokane Area.