Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Q&A with Marita Etcubañez

Wednesday, June 21st 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 Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. 


What does the Vincent Chin case mean to you?

I have spent my career as a professional advocate, as an attorney representing low-income and limited English proficient individuals, and now working to protect and advance the civil rights of Asian Americans. I grew up in Michigan -- in fact, my family moved there in the summer of 1982 -- so the Vincent Chin case has particular resonance for me. That said, I didn’t learn about this case until college when I took classes in Asian American studies. It is critical that we know our history, and that we understand and honor the struggles that have been fought to win the rights that many now take for granted.

In 1982, it was still an open question as to whether Asian Americans were protected by civil rights laws. Race was seen mainly in terms of black and white. Many Asian Americans faced hostility as a result of anti-Japanese sentiment rising out of competition with the U.S. auto industry. During the legal proceedings, arguments were made that federal civil rights law applied only to blacks, not “Orientals.” While the final outcome of the trials was a disappointment to many, one positive outcome was the holding that Asian Americans are protected by our civil rights laws, which have since been enhanced by legislation at the local, state, and federal level.

The current environment is toxic for many – for communities of color, for immigrants, for women, for LGBTQ individuals, the list goes on and on. We must be vigilant about safeguarding legal protections for all vulnerable communities and ensuring that the laws are properly enforced. We must continue the community organizing sparked by those involved in the quest for justice for Vincent Chin, by educating young people and newly-arrived immigrants about our civil rights history and by demonstrating solidarity with other affected communities in the face of hatred.

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?

The two men who beat and murdered Vincent Chin were autoworkers who thought he was Japanese American, and that’s why they made him the target of their rage and resentment. The community was roused to act by the unjust verdicts in the series of trials in this case, which resulted in neither perpetrator serving any jail time. Asian Americans, who at the time didn’t necessarily identify as “Asian American,” understood that any of us could be targeted in the same way. Many Asian Americans also understood that the answer wasn’t to then say “we are not Japanese,” but instead to find common cause with one another and to stand up and say that no one deserves to attacked because of their race, national origin, or religion. These are the lessons we need to carry forward – that we must organize and stand together to oppose hate in all its forms.

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

Many speak of the organizing around this case as the beginning of an Asian American civil rights movement in the United States. Where Asian Americans made up about 1% of the U.S. population in 1982, we are now the fastest-growing racial group in the country, and make up nearly 6% of the overall population.

Last month, as part of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of the Greater Washington, D.C. Area, Inc. (APABA-DC), I helped to organize a re-enactment of the trials in the Vincent Chin case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Our goals in staging this program were to educate the community about this important case and to highlight its lessons in our current environment of heightened fear and anxiety for immigrants and communities of color. As part of our program, we heard from Helen Zia, one of the activists who was involved in the fight for justice for Vincent Chin. Helen noted the mere fact that there was an Asian Pacific American Bar Association with a strong and active membership that could stage such an event–with a cast made up primarily of Asian American judges, no less–was a mark of our community’s progress. She also reminded us that we cannot take this progress for granted, that we must continue to push for greater representation and to speak out against injustice.

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

One legacy is the existence of an Asian American community, period. Ours is a very diverse community comprised of people from different countries of origin, who speak different languages, and follow different faiths. Even so, many people now identify as “Asian American,” which indicates some sense of community and commonality. Building on that foundation, we now need to work to turn our growing numbers into greater political power and influence so that we can make our voices heard and advance policies that will benefit our communities. In this moment, it is also vital that we build power so that we can oppose and stop policies that stand to harm our communities.

I was heartened to see so many turn out earlier this year to demonstrate their opposition to the Muslim ban. I am counting on my fellow Asian Americans to continue to stand up to anti-Muslim hate. We need to do more to educate our community, and the broader community, about hate crimes and to encourage people to report hate crimes and hate incidents. Asian Americans Advancing Justice has created an online tool––to support data collection so that we can gain a greater understanding of how hatred is manifesting against our communities. Through this project, we hope to better support individuals who have been targeted by hate, and also better craft solutions to address and prevent hate.

In addition to animus based on race, national origin, and religion, we know that people are targeted based on their sex, which includes gender identity and sexual orientation. Immigrants are increasingly being targeted. The animus against Middle Eastern, Arab, and South Asian individuals is sometimes “justified” by concerns around national security. None of this is acceptable. Our community has been here before. We know the lessons of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and must remain vigilant that this never happens again–to any community in our country. Let this be the legacy of Vincent Chin: that Asian Americans continue to protest, organize, and stand together when any of our communities are attacked. 


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Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.