Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Q&A with Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Monday, June 19th 2017

This week marks the 35th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s tragic beating and subsequent death. Asian Americans Advancing Justice commemorates this anniversary by sharing conversations with people who were involved with or were affected by Vincent Chin’s case.

Today’s conversation is with Frances Kai-Hwa Wang who teaches Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at University of Michigan. She was formerly Executive Director of American Citizens for Justice, the nonprofit civil rights organization formed after the death of Vincent Chin. You can find her at franceskaihwawang.com or @fkwang.

 

What does the Vincent Chin case mean to you?  

Before I came to Michigan for graduate school, the only thing I knew about Michigan was that it was where Vincent Chin was killed. My parents’ Japanese American neighbors warned me to sell my father’s Toyota 4Runner and buy a Ford Bronco. I asked about safety as much as I did about academics before I decided to come. After coming to Michigan, the Vincent Chin case was pivotal to my coming to understand that I was Asian American, and a person of color, and how power and perception shape the lives we are able to live.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the baseball bat beating that caused the death of Vincent Chin. Unfortunately, with the current political climate and rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, the case is even more relevant than ever.

How do you think Vincent Chin's case affected the AAPI community?

Such a light sentence for such a vicious crime was a shocking wake-up call for Asian Americans of all ethnicities who suddenly realized the brutal consequences of the “all Asians look alike” stereotype and anti-Asian slurs. Coming to America, working hard, and keeping your head down per the model minority stereotype was not enough. This could have happened to anyone.

What are lessons to learn from the Vincent Chin case? Are there any specific lessons that you think are especially relevant now, at this particular moment in time?

Racists are not very smart. Don’t count on them being able to tell any of us apart (not that that would make it ok). Don’t assume that you or your children or your elders are safe because you are not from that other group. Vincent Chin was Chinese American, and the Japanese were being blamed for the problems of the auto industry, yet Chin was called all the different anti-Asian epithets — his actual ethnicity did not matter. It could have been any one of us.

We cannot always trust the justice system to do right by us, so we need to be vigilant and speak out for justice, especially those of us who are privileged to be educated, to speak English, to be citizens, etc. Remember, the reason for the outrage about the Vincent Chin case is not because he was killed, nor because he was Chinese American mistaken for Japanese, but because his killers were only fined $3,000 and never spent a day in jail.

Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and all communities of color and faith need to stand together and look out for each other across differences. It is not enough for Chinese to look out for Chinese, for example, Chinese also need to look out for Japanese, Bangladeshis, Hmong, Muslims, Sikhs, African Americans, Latinos, etc. We all need to look beyond our own experience to better understand those of others, to find our commonalities, and to use our privileges to help others who may not be as privileged as we are or who may happen to be targeted today.

What do you think is Vincent Chin’s legacy, 35 years after his death in Detroit?

This year is not only the 35th anniversary of the death of Vincent Chin, but it is also the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. These two are connected. They remind us that racism is not just name-calling and schoolyard bullying, but is a system of inequities built into the structure, laws, and institutions of our country. They also remind us of the many ways that Asian Americans have been standing up for themselves and standing up for each other through all of Asian American history

Asian Americans of all ethnicities and generations saw themselves in the story of the Vincent Chin case and saw that it could have been any one of us — this is a lesson that is learned and relearned every time his story is told. Asian Americans also saw the power of forming multiethnic and multiracial alliances and standing together in solidarity across ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic lines.

And through it all stands the strength and quiet conviction of Mrs. Lily Chin, Vincent’s mother, an unlikely activist, who fought for justice for her son so that no mother would have to go through what she went through.

These legacies and lessons learned continue to inform how we choose to resist today.

 

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