Why Are People Still Asking, “Who is Vincent Chin” 35 Years Later?

By Quyen Hoang

Many have asked and few have or can answer.

Particularly for the AAPI community at Michigan State University (MSU), this question is thrown around frequently and when it is, more often than not you have an event facilitator ask the room filled with (typically East and Southeast) Asian Americans college students who are more than excited to be in a room full of other Asian Americans at a predominantly white institution. You will have few individuals who know, but the majority of the audience will not. Following the question, an explanation of the murder of Vincent Chin occurs and from my time at MSU, I have observed that oftentimes, students will project lackluster responses.

For the readers who aren’t aware, Vincent Chin was a Chinese American man who was murdered by two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz On June 23, 1982 in the suburbs of Detroit, MI in light of the auto industry layoffs. Chin was misidentified as a person of Japanese descent and was then beaten to death with a baseball bat and the two perpetrators received lenient sentences for second-degree murder after a plea bargain. For detailed accounts of the events surrounding the murder, please read more about them here, here, or here.

As to why the response was apathetic? I dare not to answer — but I do have speculations. For one, it might be because some students are preoccupied with the “social” aspects of college. It might be because some have been socialized to dust racism aside or even conditioned to be “colorblind.” Or perhaps some are uncomfortable with striving for social justice through the basic means of initiating dialogue.

One would expect for more audience members to be more compelled, but one thing that is often overlooked is what his murder reflects about the Asian American community. While it is true, I am not referring to how he became of symbol of activism. (The case of Vincent Chin resulted in the founding the Asian Pacific American Student Organization at MSU in 1982 as well as other Pan-Ethnic Asian American activism across the country.) I am referring to the notion that tools for Asian Americans to “get woke” and navigate their racial and/or ethnic identities in a society where race relations are seen on a black-white binary are not adequately provided. In other words, education and history surrounding AAPI communities is neglected due to sectors of white America deeming “multicultural” sensitivity as irrelevant because it does not pertain to them.

According to an alum, they did not learn about the murder of Vincent Chin until their first year at MSU. This individual felt “robbed [that] Pan-Asian Civil Rights was history hidden” by the public school system of Metro Detroit. Like this individual, many other Asian Americans do not learn about Vincent Chin until they attend institutions of higher education; some do not even hear about his case at all. What is most vital about this observation is that there is an erasure of Asian American and Pacific Islanders within American history.

Given that the production of knowledge in the United States is Eurocentric, Asian American students have no reference to their racial category and as a result, they are encouraged if not, coerced into adopting white American narratives as their own. Noted that there are evident trials with centralizing education policy as seen through the No Child Left Behind Act, some form of education reform at the national level is a potential way to reflect, respect, and be inclusive of the diverse American mosaic. Education in the United States is already concentrated at the state level and Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13791 which “Enforces Statutory Prohibitions on Federal Control of Education,” states the obvious. While this is so, the order has the potential to be harmful because it repeals Obama administration guidelines that were set in place to protect civil rights of students. For instance, the Trump administration repealed previous guidelines “that advocated states to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.”

Education is rooted within the local realm but education reform — or guidelines — within the national politics could be effective in reaching out to all. Discrimination from education is one thing, but discrimination within curriculum is another. If an Asian American student can barely receive an education about their own people from public school, what makes you think a white student in college will learn about Vincent Chin and Asian American civil rights?

I do not have a solution to solve the issues that are present within American race relations, but a suggestion is for schools to better equip students to deal racism and implicit biases. To even go deeper to the root of the issue, public schools should decolonize and move away from Eurocentric curriculum so that AAPI narratives and history, along with those of Native American, Latinx, and African-Americans are no longer made invisible.

Quyen Hoang is a rising senior at Michigan State University studying Comparative Cultures and Politics with minors in Asian Pacific American Studies and Peace and Justice Studies. She is interning with the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) through the OCA Summer Internship Program.

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