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Posted on Sat, Jun 30, 2012 : 1:21 p.m.

Remembering Vincent Chin: Decent people must always oppose ugly rhetoric and misplaced blame

By Tom Watkins

Thirty years ago, a fatal blow was struck to fairness, decency, and the American way.

After lying in a coma for several days due to head injuries suffered in a baseball bat attack, Vincent Chin died on June 19, 1982.

Officially, it was a blow to the head that killed Vincent Chin. But it was ugly rhetoric, tolerated by a complacent society, which set the stage for Chin's murder.

In the early 1980s, the Big 3 domestic auto industry was again feeling the periodic pinch of foreign competition. Even then, a stagnant economy, plant closings and layoffs of blue-collar workers were the norm.


Amy Lee places flowers at the grave stone of her nephew, Vincent Chin, on the 20th anniversary of his death in 2002.

AP Photo

At UAW union halls around town, signs reading "No Foreign Cars Allowed" and "Don't Even Think About Parking A Foreign Car Here" and other incendiary messages sprouted like weeds.

Anti-"foreign" sentiment was at a fever pitch. I recall a local church carnival where, for one U.S. dollar, you got three hits with a sledge hammer on a Toyota car.

Rhetorical poison, as lethal as carbon dioxide gas, was seeping into the public consciousness. Anger and hate were being spewed like the black soot spewing from Rouge Plant smoke stacks. A blame game mentality was setting in, particularly against "Asians" for the economic woes that had beset many in manufacturing-land.

Metro Detroit became ground zero for this anger and frustration where many displaced autoworkers felt that global change was yanking the economic rug out from under them. Far too many heard and saw the hate. But they chose to remain silent.

Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, became the target of pent up anger and hate fueled with alcohol from Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, both laid-off autoworkers. Chin was at a bar for his bachelor party. Mistaking Chin for Japanese, Ebens taunted Chin, blaming him for their plight.

Chin and Ebens started fighting; Nitz joined in the battle. The fight was stopped and Chin left. Outside, Ebens and Nitz caught up to Chin striking him several times with a baseball bat, including a fatal blow to the head.

The injustice and crime did not end there. At the trial for the murder of Vincent Chin, both Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz plead guilty to manslaughter. For a hate crime and the murder of an innocent man, they plea bargained down to three years probation, a $3,000 fine and $780 in court costs.

Angered by the sentence, the broader Asian-American community raised hell, pressing the U.S. Department of Justice to charge the two men with violating Chin's civil rights. There were two more trials for civil rights violations and conspiracy, but ultimately the men who beat Vincent Chin to death with a baseball bat were cleared of the charges.

Today, anti-Asian sentiment still exists in America. Both Democrats and Republicans have attempted to make China the boogey-man for the economic challenges of the 21st century.

Two men with a baseball bat killed Vincent Chin 30 years ago. Ignorance coupled with society's tolerance for misplaced blame were accessories. We cannot allow anger, hate, prejudice and misinformation to boil over and kill.

It has been said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Stop the hate. Speak up.

Remember Vincent Chin.

(Tom Watkins is Michigan's former state superintendent of public instruction. He has a lifetime interest in China and is recognized by the Chinese Association of Greater Detroit as 2012 lifetime achievement award recipient for his work in building cultural, educational and economic bridges with China. He can be reached at:



Thu, Jul 5, 2012 : 9:23 p.m.

Thank you, Tom, for reminding us of this tragedy. I hope we can all understand and re-evaluate the source of our hate.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 6:44 p.m.

It is gratifying that all the Comments here been opposed to xenophobia, with only one exception. The one outburst of xenophobia stuck out particularly in that it had no relevance to the article, it had nothing to do with Japan or China. It was just someone jumping in off-topic to spew his hatred of Israel.


Mon, Jul 2, 2012 : 1:42 a.m.

To MiSola: As I thought, we are in agreement. Sorry that I did not express myself clearly enough for the first time and confused you. You are very gracious and I take no offense.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 9:08 p.m.

Yet again, you are correct in correcting those, when it's justified. In this case, sir, it's me. My apologies.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 8:31 p.m.

To MiSola: I am completely perplexed as to why you address your Comment to me. I am as critical of the Chinese government and its unfair trade practices as you are. Indeed, I quite agree with your objections to Watkin's dismissive attitude on that subject. That has nothing to do with xenophobia. What is xenophobia is beating a Chinese-American to death because you think he looks like those in a government or a business on the other side of the globe whose actions hurt you or displease you. Again, I believe we both agree on that. The similar situation that I referred to and that occurs in Ann Arbor is to harass an American house of worship during its services because you disapprove of the existence of a country in Asia, the only connection between the two being a common religion (The Commenter I referred to is part of that).


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 7:49 p.m.

"Xenophobia?" "Today, anti-Asian sentiment still exists in America." "Both Democrats and Republicans have attempted to make China the boogey-man for the economic challenges of the 21st century." What kind of statements are these? May I ask, who is the real bogey-man (economic challenge) in your educated opinion? "Why do you seem to delight in demonizing American's, whose assembly line jobs were shipped to China? Politicians are accurate to point the finger at China as a significant reason for this. Allow me to position myself for your own racism. The Chinese government allows it's wealthy to employ virtually slave labor to compete with Americans who did assembly line jobs. It never considered the welfare of it's slave labor force, by requiring employers to provide minimal health care. There are no human rights or welfare regulations that either exist or are enforced. The Chinese government allows any thing to be made in China, illegally ignoring of copyright and then shipped illegally to America. The Chinese government devalues it's own money to help squash any fair competition from America. Chinese government will even flood the market with manufactured goods, even at financial loss to destroy any compassion. Shall we continue or do you have enough to label me a racist? I understand people's resentment towards China, based on what they know about it. I personally don't believe most Americans have ill will towards Americans of Chinese decent. But for them to feel resentment towards chinese business men and the Chinese government, for their families having to be on unemployment? Give it a break for Watkins. Why don't you balance your articles at bit look at reality and feel compassion towards the people, that have truly suffered during the sift of jobs to China.

Silly Sally

Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 12:37 p.m.

@Northside - Your statement is spot on for today's job losses. But 30 years ago, corporate America, especially the big 3 auto companies were not sending jobs to Asia, Japan was just a strong competitor with lower wages in 1980.Laid off auto workers were correct to place some of their blame on the Japanese, more correctly Japanese auto firms. but never individuals. This is like blaming one of us for America's actions in Iraq.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 4:37 p.m.

A fatal blow was struck to "Fairness, decency, and the American way" This is the lead in to this story? What do two vicious killers that brutally beat a man to death, have to do with fairness, decency and the American Way? I'm sure part of the reason was that they were racist. Why does this reflect on anyone but them? "American way" Fairness, Decency" By the way, is fairness practiced by anyone in Asia, when it comes to business practices? How many American made cars, or any goods being sold in Japan? The Japanese government makes it very unprofitable to even try to sell American products there. And they make no apologies. Racism? May I suggest going to Hainan, China for a vacation or to work. You will find yourself being the target of intense racist harassment from the nice Chinese family's on vacation there. Would you care to speculate what would happen if you found yourself responding to that type of provocation? Good luck. At lest in America, we are a county of laws and all ethnic groups are protected. Of course, some local judges, etc are corrupt, but I believe this went to the federal level and created the hate crimes laws. You won't find that in China. So lets be fair to ourself's, America and the vast majority that practices at lest a minimal level of humanity towards everyone in our country. I'm sure people will respond with exceptions, but personally I don't even care to hear it. At the end of the day, none of this has to do with anything, except individuals who are brutal murderers.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 11:40 a.m.

Tom this is an excellent piece on Vincent Chin's murder. I'm sure those who wish to forget what happened or deny the intense climate or racism that existed will say 'why bring this up, it was 30 years ago.' As you note, a key way to prevent such things from happening in the future is to recognize what happened in the past. I do take issue with your end-of-the-column attempt to lump all criticisms related to China into the same category. The "they're stealing our jobs" group certainly exists today, exemplified by Pete Hoekstra's racist ad that attempted to stir up animosity towards the Chinese. But it is fully legitimate and necessary to ask tough questions as to why U.S. corporate leaders (aka, the 1%) have moved manufacturing plants from the U.S. to other nations over the past 30-40 years. The answers are obvious and not pleasant: the workers are paid are fraction of the wage they'd get here, they don't get benefits, and working conditions are often unsafe. The tragedy of 30 years ago isn't that autoworkers were angry; they had every right to be. The tragedy was that they scapegoated a minority group, when the anger should have been directed at the corporate leadership.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 5:37 a.m.

Mr. Chin's killing was indefensible, and the slap on the attackers' wrists in the criminal charge and their subsequent acquittal in the civil-rights cases seem equally outrageous. And, while the attacks were certainly fueled by xenophobia, I think that blaming "no foreign cars allowed here" signs in union-hall parking lots is a bit much. Incendiary, hateful rhetoric is one thing; simply telling people driving non-UAW made cars not to park at their union hall is quite another.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 3:46 p.m.

Matt - It obviously isn't that simple. My point is that scapegoating and xenophobia set the stage for violence. But it should be self-evident that the UAW, or any union, wouldn't want non-union cars in their parking lots and that they, accordingly, would place signs to that effect.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 1:37 p.m.

If it were only so simple as just being a few signs in union hall parking lots. It was so much more. It was a cultural hatred through and through in a lot of areas of our society.

Silly Sally

Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 4:03 a.m.

Did Jesse Jackson even care, or was he just there to get publicity for himself?

Silly Sally

Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 4 a.m.

Hate crimes are just wrong and an attack against free speech. Both men in the Vincent Chen murder should have been punished much more severely. A baseball bat? This was no simple fight, they intended to harm him, and they did. Existing laws would have placed them behind bars for years and years, if they had been used. but they were not. Weather Japan (then) or china (now) are taking American jobs is a different topic. But it certainly is not the fault of an individual man such as Vincent Chen. Some judges are so silly

Stuart Brown

Sat, Jun 30, 2012 : 11:28 p.m.

bedrog, Can you tell the readers what Nakba Day is and why it is necessary to criminalize the commemorated of this day in Israel? Conflating the murder of Vincent Chin with people who are critical of the blatantly one-sided support the US government gives the State of Israel is really offensive. The First Amendment will be consigned to the dustbin of history if zealous supporters of Israel have their way. This will be done in the name of protecting a bogus narrative of history that in reality seeks to hide the other side of the story.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 5:40 p.m.

pps.."stuart": given those you regualarry shill for , your comment about being 'offended" warrants only a bemused ( at your breathtaking chutzpah) "chuckle chuckl".


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 11:35 a.m.

p.s "stuart": you're slipping ,as the seemingly main surviving local spokesman for your party , by not weighing in on a recent thread about how a speaker from your camp ( formerly at least) is being hosted by local anticorporate 'activists' ( a keyword that usually has you jumping for the keyboard (and wagging a figurative tail and drooling in delight)..


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 10:36 a.m.

thanks for the ever reliable support "stuart".. The 1st amendment seems to only cut one way for you " if i can do it, i will do it, even if i shouldn't do it ". well ,i'm more of a justice holmes guy ( and sort of like this op ed writer): those who incite and lie get called to account and certainly should not be given extra platforms and indulgence for their bad behavior.


Sat, Jun 30, 2012 : 9:13 p.m.

I was acquainted with one of the police officers onsite as well as the sentencing judge in the case, Judge Charles Kaufman. Kaufman took heat as he was a WWII veteran who was an inmate in a Japanese POW camp and the American Citizens For Justice felt this was a factor in the lenient sentence. In reality, Judge Kaufman was acting on a probation department recommendation. Additionally, it was the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office that agreed to reduce first-degree murder charges against Nitz and Ebens to manslaughter in exchange for a guilty plea. It was and is common for those convicted of manslaughter to receive probationary sentences in Wayne County. It should also be stressed it was Vincent Chin who, at the Fancy Pants Lounge in Highland Park, threw the first punch in the melee after being insulted by Ebens. There was little evidence that the incident was racially motivated. Jesse Jackson hugged Chin's mother, Lily, during his 1984 presidential campaign in a highly-publicized press photo. Vincent Chin's killing was tragic and perhaps should have been punished more severely - but there was scant proof that it was a racially-motivated crime.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 9:47 p.m.

A2, you're actually trying to make an arguement defending these two guys for stalking, planning, and engaging paid assistance, in a premeditated act of committing murder to an average bar room brawl? A brawl that instigated the planned murder in an act of revenge.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 7:38 p.m.

Matt, Nitz and Ebens were badly outnumber inside of the strip club. Ebens was hit over the head with a chair, according to witnesses. Was anyone prosecuted for hitting Ebens over the head with the chair? Let me get this straight: If you are of non-white heritage and hit a white guy over the head with a chair, that's ok. But if the same white guy takes a bat to you it's racism because you are of non-white heritage? Possibly, using your liberal slant, he was suffering from shock and PTSD of having his head bashed when he caught up with Chin.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 1:34 p.m.

1. There were several witnesses who saw them beating Chin to death that testified that they heard both defendants making shouting epithets as they were beating him to death. There were people inside the bar who testified to this as well. 2. The judge, who you claim was acting on a probation department recommendation, was quoted in an interview later, after being asked why he was so lenient in sentencing these two baboons, as saying "These aren't the kind of people you send to prison. You don't make the punishment fit the crime. You make the punishment fit the criminal". Essentially saying that because these two had clean records and no prior contact with law enforcement they didn't deserve to be punished as harshly as other defendants would for beating a man to death with a baseball bat. 3. "It should also be stressed it was Vincent Chin who, at the Fancy Pants Lounge in Highland Park, threw the first punch in the melee after being insulted by Ebens". So throwing the first punch at one man gives that man and his family license to beat him to death with a baseball bat? Since you appear knowledgeable about the case I will assume that you also knew that Nitz and Ebens left the bar with the intention of finding Chin, they drove the neighborhood in search of him, even going to the extreme of paying a local resident cash money to help them find him. It matters not who threw the first punch, and to even try to "stress" such a point shows a gross lack of understanding of why this is in fact a racially motivated case. To claim that it is anything BUT a racially motivated case is downright laughable in my opinion.


Sat, Jun 30, 2012 : 11:22 p.m.

well i see a couple of the supporters of the clowns i cited have weighed in with thumbs down...sweet.

Stuart Brown

Sat, Jun 30, 2012 : 11:11 p.m.

Roadman, If the killers had been black, I doubt the sentences would have been as lenient. The lightness of the sentences were widely regarded at the time as a deference to the sensibilities of the laid-off auto-workers. Ebens stalked Chin when Chin was no threat to Ebens and murdered him; the charge should have at least been second degree homicide. Also, Ebens took the first hostile act with a racially charged statement ("It's because of people like you we are out of work.") Having said the above, the whole idea of having a separate category of "Hate Crime" is a slippery slope from a Freedom of Speech point of view. I view it as a prelude to criminalizing speech which does not fit the "correct" historic narrative. It seems to me there are plenty of ways to put racist killers behind bars without criminalizing speech.


Sat, Jun 30, 2012 : 7:30 p.m.

bad story Tom...but why go back 30 years?? more current and more local are these clowns:


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 12:41 p.m.

northside...quite simply the new website i linked sheds light on perhaps the most outrageous case of long standing bigotry- based harassment in ann arbor...and one that amazingly alot of supposedly well meaning people , who get agitated at other cases of real or supposed cases of defamation, are either ignorant about, or willing to tolerate for some odd reason.


Sun, Jul 1, 2012 : 11:43 a.m.

bedrog what's up with all the recent posts about this group?