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The Atlanta shootings, Vincent Chin and America's history of anti-Asian racism

In 1982, Chin's killers said his death wasn't about race. The authorities believed them.
Image: Lily Chin holds a photograph of her son Vincent Chin.
Vincent Chin's killers claimed his death wasn't about race — even as it was clearly about race.Richard Sheinwald / AP; MSNBC

In a press conference on Wednesday, law enforcement officials in Cherokee County, Georgia, drew some surprising conclusions about the man they had just arrested and accused of killing eight people at three spas in the Atlanta area.

Despite the appearance of anti-Asian bias in the attacks, which killed six Asian women, the sheriff’s office suggested that racial bias played no role in the case. “During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds asserted. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”

The long history of anti-Asian violence in America suggests that it’s unwise to draw the quick and easy conclusions these officials have apparently made.

The officers accepted the suspect’s word that he was actually motivated by a sexual addiction and seeking to “eliminate” a source of “temptation.” As they did so, the authorities seemed to rationalize his actions. “He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him,” Capt. Jay Baker argued, “and this is what he did.”

The actual motive for these killings is still unproven, but the long history of anti-Asian violence in America suggests that it’s unwise to draw the quick and easy conclusions these officials have apparently made.

Consider the killing of Chinese American man Vincent Chin, nearly four decades ago.

On the night of June 19, 1982, Chin and three friends went to a strip club just outside Detroit. It was meant to be a celebratory bachelor party for Chin, but the night quickly turned ugly. At the Fancy Pants club in Highland Park, two white patrons confronted Chin in the club, pushing him and brandishing a chair. The two white men, workers in an auto industry struggling to compete with thriving Japanese competitors, apparently mistook Chin to be Japanese American and decided to vent their anger. “It’s because of you little motherf------ that we’re out of work!” one witness later recalled one of the men shouted.

The altercation spilled into the parking lot, but Chin soon fled when one of the white men pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk. Chin and a friend sought refuge in the bright lights of a McDonald’s parking lot a few blocks away, but the white men — 42-year-old Ronald Ebens, a foreman at a Chrysler plant, and his 23-year-old stepson, Michael Nitz, a college student with a part-time job — found them there, after nearly 30 minutes searching the neighborhood.

An off-duty police officer, working security inside McDonald’s, saw what happened. First, Nitz chased Chin down in the parking lot, tackling him and pinning his arms. Then his stepfather attacked Chin. “Ebens was standing over him with the baseball bat and was just pounding him in the head,” the policeman later recalled. “He hit him four times. Four times. There was blood coming from everywhere. Out of his ears and everywhere.”

He and another off-duty officer then raced to confront Ebens, pistols drawn, shouting at him until he dropped the bat, a 34-inch Louisville Slugger embossed with the autograph of none other than Jackie Robinson. Chin was rushed to a local hospital, but, his skull crushed, he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

The identity of Chin’s killer was never in doubt. But his motives were deliberately occluded.

Despite the eyewitness accounts of three dancers in the club, who relayed the “motherf------” line to the police and added that the white men had used racial slurs, Ebens and Nitz insisted that their actions that night had no racist motivation whatsoever.

The authorities apparently agreed with them. Prosecutors reduced the charges against Ebens and Nitz from second-degree murder to a plea agreement on the lighter charge of manslaughter. Even that lesser charge still carried with it the potential for 15 years’ imprisonment, but that kind of accountability was swept away at the sentencing hearing.

Wayne County Judge Charles Kaufman listened to the pleas for leniency from the defense lawyers and decided, after a quick five-minute recess, to provide just that. He sentenced the two men to three years’ probation, with no jail time at all. The harshest penalty for the bludgeoning of Vincent Chin came in the form of about $3,700 in fines and court fees. That was all.

Kaufman, a World War II veteran who had spent time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, brushed off accusations of anti-Asian racism and insisted that a light penalty was warranted. “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” he wrote in a letter to the Detroit-area group American Citizens for Justice.

As the decision came under fire across the nation, Kaufman dug in, insisting he had been wholly correct. “These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else,” he said. “I just didn’t think that putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

The Asian American community was understandably outraged. The lack of accountability for the man Ebens and Nitz had already harmed struck them as a sign of their marginal place in American society and their minimized place in the American legal system. “You can kill a dog and get 30 days,” grumbled a leader in Detroit’s Chinatown. The negligible sentence signaled not simply a lack of justice for Vincent Chin but also a lack of security for all Asian Americans like him.

But that didn’t matter to the authorities. The men charged with dispensing justice observed that Ebens and Nitz were fed up; they were at the end of their rope; they just had a bad night.

And this is what they did.