The legacy of the Vincent Chin case for the Asian American civil rights movement and all of us
I recently had the honor of participating in the installation of the State Bar of Michigan’s 34th Michigan Legal Milestone Plaque, “From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry,” which recognizes the many legal changes that have come about because of the Vincent Chin case and benefit all of us, including minimum sentencing guidelines, victim’s impact statements, the importance of sentencing hearings, recognition of the risk that goes with changes in venue, as well as the role of this case as the catalyst for the Asian American civil rights movement.
Outgoing Mayor of Ferndale Craig Covey, who also installed an accompanying Vincent Chin memorial plaque by the City of Ferndale, recognized the struggles for equality throughout American history by “almost every group that has made this place home” including Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Irish Americans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and said:
"Equal justice in America is not a given. It is not a guarantee rather it is a constant struggle. It takes vigilance and effort and energy. We must always strive toward fair and equal justice, knowing that it may never be fully achieved."
I expected it to be a quietly dignified but dull ceremony with officials and speeches, but I was so touched by the wide spectrum of people who took the time to come and what they had to say. One of Vincent Chin’s friends who was at that fateful bachelor’s party happened to see the newspaper article about the event that morning and came. The sister of another friend who was at the bachelor’s party was there, as well as the nurse-on-duty at the hospital that night, activists who never knew Vincent Chin but organized on his behalf, lawyers, police officers, elected officials, journalists, families and younger people like me who learned about the case from books, documentary films and university lectures.
The two bronze plaques were installed in the median of Woodward Avenue in Ferndale outside of what used to be the Golden Star Restaurant (now the Post Bar), because that is where Vincent Chin had once worked as a waiter and where Asian American community members gathered and worked for justice. This case was the first time that Asian Americans of all ethnicities spontaneously mobilized around a unified cause, and learned how to speak up, organize, network, build coalitions, fundraise, work with the media — the birth of the Asian American civil rights movement. Since then, the history of the Vincent Chin case has become a staple in Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, American Culture and law courses around the country, and its impact continues far beyond Vincent Chin’s last whispered words.
A year ago, Dec. 3, 2009, 27 Asian American students — many recent immigrants — were attacked at South Philadelphia High School in a day-long assault — including roving bands of students going from classroom to classroom searching for Asian American students to pull out of class and beat up. Thirteen Asian American students were sent to the hospital that day. Asian American students then staged an eight-day boycott to protest how school administrators did nothing to protect the students while the violence escalated, for years, despite teachers and students repeatedly reporting concerns about safety.
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department reached an agreement with the School District of Philadelphia to actively work towards preventing discrimination, harassment and bullying in schools.
One of the student leaders, Wei Chen, a recent immigrant from China, said he learned that, “You have the power to change the school. And, it’s not just stay there, adult help you to change. You have the right, ‘cause you are human being.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang spoke at the installation as former executive director and current Advisory Board member of American Citizens for Justice, the Asian Pacific American civil rights organization founded after the baseball beating death of Vincent Chin. More information available at American Citizens for Justice's blog and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's blog.