Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Q&A with Helen Zia

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 Helen Zia who is a  writer, a journalist, and activist. She is one of the founders of American Citizens for Justice and was very involved in the Vincent Chin case.


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?

A society that is filled with hate and hateful rhetoric that is demeaning to and targeting a group of people leads to hate crimes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s that rhetoric was aimed at Japan, Japanese people, and was extended to anybody who looked Japanese, which was unfortunately the case of a Chinese American named Vincent Chin. And anyone who looked Asian, no matter where they were in the United States, felt the hatred, so it wasn't isolated just to Michigan or Detroit or the auto industry; it was really the entire country and beyond. This is exactly what we’re seeing in terms of anyone associated with in some way with the Middle East, Islam, to being brown or looking Muslim, which basically can be anybody. We unfortunately see countless hate crimes happening in this climate.

Another important lesson is communities. On the community front, communities must hold perpetrators accountable. People who are susceptible -- who are wanting to blame other people for problems in society -- must be educated but also held accountable. Not just that, but politicians, the criminal justice system, and basically institutions of state power must also be held accountable and challenged whenever they support or perpetuate this kind of rhetoric and also where they fail to hold up justice and equality for all. One of the biggest failures in prosecuting and recording hate crimes is that police on the ground do not recognize where there is racially biased and other forms of hatred involved. The inclination of the system is to say, “no, there was no race involved, it was just an ordinary killing. An “ordinary killing.” At the time, we even had civil rights attorneys and constitutional law professors saying that it was a “run of the mill” killing in Detroit. Why should you Asians get so upset? That was their attitude.

Third lesson is that communities must stand together. There must be organizing and standing up and making our voices heard and joining hands with other communities. This is absolutely fundamental to holding systems accountable and bringing justice to bear. The Vincent Chin case was one of the first, if not the first, examples of Asian American multi-ethnic pan-Asian communities standing together across the country on a mass-community level. What we said then is that it was like going back 100 years to 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and back then, killers of Chinese Americans got off scot-free, nothing happened to them. 100 years later, the same thing happened. The difference in 1982 is that all the Asian communities really came together. Not only Asian, but multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class, inter-denominational; it was a very broad-based movement and got great support from many, many different communities.

We don’t have to reinvent the idea of multi-racial, multi-cultural unity. It's been done before. If we can break through the divisive presentation of history that makes it looks like none of our communities came together, all we need to do is look at real history, and see that it's been done before. We’ve stood up together before and we accomplished things and made a difference for all people and all human beings. That's been done.


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

Initially, when we activists in Michigan began trying to get a federal civil rights case initiated, the question was whether an Asian American immigrant would be covered and protected by federal civil rights law -- that was something that we had to argue and fight for. There were even progressive organizations like the ACLU of Michigan, National Lawyer's Guild of Michigan, and constitutional law professors who said that Asian Americans and immigrants are not covered by federal civil rights law. Vincent Chin was the very first Asian American ever to have a case brought forward with protection under federal civil rights law. With the immigration debate going on today, can you imagine if immigrants were not covered by federal civil rights law? The Vincent Chin case contributed to a broadening of the view of how civil rights law can be used to protect people.

People think: oh, the Vincent Chin case is just something that the Asian American community should remember. That's not true; it applies to all Americans.

What does the Vincent Chin case mean to you?  

Instead of what it meant to me personally, I would just say, when it gets down to it, the Vincent Chin case was organized by ordinary people in Michigan who came together and worked very hard over a period of many years. And for some of us, it was like a second job, but we persisted. And it really shows what can be accomplished by a relatively small number of people who are committed to the ideal of justice for all people and who continued to want to see the laws that are supposed to protect all people to fight to make it apply to everyone. To me, the case is really about the power of people coming together -- of ordinary people coming together -- to make something happen for the good of all people.


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