looking back, looking forward

It’s the closing night at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film Festival and one film — not a new film — really caught my eye this year.

On Saturday, the festival showed the 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? The documentary is a powerful staple of Asian American history which I had never gotten around to seeing. It is the story of the beginnings of Asian American activism, which came about on the heels of the end of a man’s life. In 1982, Detroit, Vincent Chin got in a barroom brawl with Robert Ebens. Ebens and his stepson then pursued Chin outside the bar; while his stepson held him down, Ebens beat Chin over the head with a baseball bat. Chin went into a coma and died four days later in the hospital.

Vicent Chin
Vicent Chin

Ebens was charged with manslaughter in a plea bargain and was given a $3000 fine and three years probation. He and his stepson did not have to spend a single day in jail, and people were angry enough to organize. That time in Detroit was a flush with anti-Japan sentiment; Japanese carmakers were taking a big chunk out of business for the big American companies. Ebens, it turns out, had just lost his job as a supervisor when the Chrysler plant where he worked was shut down. Chin was a Chinese American, but according to witnesses, Ebens said to him at the bar, “”It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” The case was taken to federal court where Ebens was accused of violating Chin’s civil rights (there were no hate crimes laws on the books yet).  Ebens was acquitted on all counts, but by then, Chin’s story and the struggle of his mother, Lily Chin, had galvanized a generation of Asian Americans to demand rights as “real Americans”.

Fast forward to 2009, and Chrysler is in even bigger trouble. How have things changed for immigrants and minorities in America? Even director Renee Tajima-Pena, who gave a Q&A after the screening, did not quite have an answer. But she did say that there has certainly been progress; violence and the racism that fueled anger against Asian immigrants is not as prevalent as it was when Vincent Chin was murdered. But immigrants are still facing very big hurdles in this recession. A Center for Immigration Studies survey shows that immigrants have higher rates of unemployment than the general population; even well-educated immigrants have an unemployment rate of 6.3% compared to 4% of American-born degree-holders. A Committee of 100 survey (PDF) shows that “China fear” is alive and well in America. Concerns about protectionism and potential immigration policies are growing. As the discussions about how best to deal with growing unemployment and economic challenges get heated, the story of Vincent Chin is a timely reminder of the perils of xenophobia.