Juneteenth and 40 Years After Vincent Chin


This past week we saw the celebration of Juneteenth come alive with coincidence. June 19th was also the 40th year after the beating death in Detroit of Vincent Chin.

Vincent Who?

Imagine the number of people who still don’t know either Juneteenth or Vincent Chin. This is the coincidence of ignorance that runs rampant in America.

It also signifies the importance of history and diversity.

This is the second year since Juneteenth became a federal holiday. And it seems the basic story will always be worth repeating until each and every one of us can repeat why the day is so special.Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

Juneteenth is the day everyone in this country finally got the word that slavery had ended. Though officially abolished with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, slavery persisted until the U.S. Army brought word to Galveston, Texas in 1865.

When it comes to social justice, even when you win, someone will slow roll you to the very end. So Juneteenth is a worthy celebration, to note the real end of slavery in America, and to celebrate the triumph of truth and history.

Is there any wonder why there are still forces out there that don’t want Americans to know even these rudimentary facts of U.S. history? They claim the history is too critical of whites, or harmful to white self-esteem.

But as former attorney general William Barr, star of the Jan. 6 hearings likes to say, “Bullshit.”

Everyone should know of our American history and how there were holdouts in Texas among those who couldn’t see their racism, just the value of free labor.

On Juneteenth everyone was finally on the same page, and it was as if America was on the same team again.

At least for a day.

No Justice for Vincent Chin 

If Juneteenth is about overcoming a sense of delay, Asian Americans know a little about that from another important June 19th event, the first day of the iconic hate crime against Vincent Chin.

And we’re still waiting.

The official record will say Chin died on June 23rd, 1982. But his ordeal began the night of the 19th, when Ronald Ebens, a white auto worker, took a baseball bat and clubbed Chin unconscious in a fast-food parking lot in suburban Detroit.

Chin was in a coma at the Henry Ford Hospital on the 19th, the 20th, the 21st, and the 22nd. Then on the June 23rd, Chin didn’t wake up.

But an entire generation of Asian Americans did.

For those born in the civil rights era, Chin was the call to social justice, an awakening. It was just the first wave. If you didn’t think you had a right to speak or cry out in anguish, Chin’s death let every Asian American know this was the time.

Since then, the Asian American population has grown from just under 4 million to more than 24 million people. And now, a new generation is discovering the impact and the importance of the Chin case, in a time when the twice-impeached former Republican president scapegoated Asian Americans for the pandemic by using slurs like “Kung Flu” and “China Virus.” From March 2020 to Dec. 2021, more than 11,000 hate incidents have occurred in the COVID era, ranging from mere epithets to physical violence, including death.

That’s more than 11,000 Vincent Chins.

In 2022, the 40th anniversary of Chin’s death, Asian Americans don’t need a federal holiday.

But we do need time to reflect and understand what the Chin case and the last four decades have to say about the state of Asian America and diversity.

All we’re left with are these facts.

At the state murder prosecution, Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, were allowed to plea bargain to second degree murder, given 3 years’ probation, and fined $3,720. The first federal prosecution on civil rights charges did end in a 25-year guilty sentence for Ebens. But the subsequent appeal by Ebens to the Sixth Circuit was granted, and the second federal trial was moved from Detroit to Cincinnati.

And that’s where it all ended in Ebens’ acquittal.

Add it all up, and it seems a far cry from justice. One man dead. Perps go free. Ebens told me when he thinks about Chin, he said no images come to mind.

“It just makes me sick to my stomach, that’s all,” he said, thinking about all the lives that were wrecked, both Chin’s and his own.

I’m not his judge. But after talking to Ebens, I still feel that if Chin were not Asian or a person of color, Ebens wouldn’t have felt the rage he did. Nor would he have extended the fight beyond the Fancy Pants into the street, and then later to the McDonald’s. Ebens beating a white guy? He would have seen himself. Not some “other.” He would have stopped the violence. But we all know, he didn’t.

For me, that’s when discussions of hate crimes become relevant. Ebens may have warded off hate crime charges. But there was enough hate present in my legal system. Ebens can also insist the incident was not about race. But the facts remain: Ebens killed an Asian American man and got away with it. That’s the criminal matter. In the civil case, Ebens continues to claim poverty to avoid a huge wrongful death judgment against him.

And that’s why we should stop and think about this case. This year. Next year. Every year. Not just for Asian Americans but for all BIPOC communities, past, present, and future. It’s a perfect time to pause and reflect on what happened on those five days, starting with June 19th, Juneteenth, and ending on June 23rd, when we awake, inspired to take action in the name of social justice for all in the memory of Vincent Chin.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok