Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Q&A with Renee Tajima-Peña

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 Renee Tajima-Peña, director and producer of "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" 

What does the Vincent Chin case mean to you?

When I made "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" I was just out of college, and had been deeply involved in the Asian American movement as a high school and college student.  My dream had been to become a civil rights lawyer, but I discovered that there was too much reading in law school so I gravitated to filmmaking.  Making this film brought together everything I cared about.

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?

Today Asian Americans are an emerging social force, not only by our growing numbers, but because of the role we play in the paradigm of race in an increasingly polarized nation.  On the one hand, we endure the marker of race. We can’t avoid it, we’re marked as different, the other.  There was never any question for Vincent Chin’s mother, Lily.  She was convinced that Vincent was killed because he was Chinese. Today, Asians continue to be targeted by racial violence, in particular South Asians—the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas and the shooting of Jasmit Singh in Washington State are only among the most recent incidents. 

But Asian Americans also benefit from racial privilege and the myth of the model minority, vis a vis African American and Latinx communities.  Many Asian Americans, including new immigrants, do not know the history of racism in the US and how intertwined we are with the legacy of racism towards other groups.  Any flashpoint issue today, such as deportations, threats to civil liberties, as well as racial violence—resonate in the Asian American story.  The [Chinese] Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first time the US marked a race for exclusion.  When I hear of an undocumented mother of 4 with no criminal history being seized for deportation when she showed up for her immigration, I think of my grandfather who could not be naturalized for the first 50 years he lived in America.  He had to check in with immigration every year, with character references from his employers.  Some of his employers were downright nasty.  And of course, my family was imprisoned without due process during World War II.  

At the same time, the Black movement for equality changed the lives of Asian Americans. Asian Americans went to segregated schools, they couldn’t intermarry with whites in many states, and an “Asiatic Barred Zone” excluded us from immigrating to the US until 1965.  My family settled in our neighborhoods—not because we loved the houses but because of racial covenants and redlining.  We do not face those barriers to equality because of the Civil Rights movement.  The fact that Vincent’s killers, Ron Ebens and Mike Nitz, were charged under federal hate crime laws is because of that movement for equality, fought by African Americans and people of color.  

So the Vincent Chin story is a part of that legacy.  We can never forget.

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

The Vincent Chin case was a wake up call to Asian Americans who bought into the model minority myth, and believed we were somehow immune from racism, that it was only a black or brown problem.  I think that is a common fallacy of some Asian Americans today, that we’ve somehow “made it.”  Asian Americans were looked at as being a model minority, with no problems—a people who were accepted in society.  That was a false narrative, of course.  Fake news!  But the history of the US is a racialized one, going back to before our founding fathers.  Asian Americans have always been a part of that debate: Who is an American? What color is an American?

At the time of Vincent’s death, we were at a turning point demographically and politically.  We were previously a small minority population that was largely Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese that shared common migration and labor histories. Our cultural and political identity was rooted in that Asian America.  

After immigration reforms, we became the fastest growing racial group, representing dozens of national and ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic difference.  So the challenge for the Asian American Movement when the Justice for Vincent Chin campaign launched was forging solidarity in this increasingly diverse Asian America.  It had always been a difficult task, but we were now a people with vastly different experience and historical memories.  The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II had been a rallying point for the Movement, but new immigrants from places like China, Korea, and the Philippines, remembered the war for the brutality of Japanese military expansion.  Asian American activism during the 1960s and 70s was shaped by the anti-Vietnam War movement, but many new Southeast Asians refugees viewed Ho Chi Minh as the enemy and the American military as allies. The Movement had a long proud history of support for labor struggles, and internal tensions between activists and Asian American growers, restaurant owners and the like had always been there. Just as some Asian American had always embraced the idea that we are a Model Minority.  How were we going to bridge difference within our own communities and broaden the Asian American movement for social justice?

That work had always been going on, but the Vincent Chin case was a real decisive moment in forging that solidarity.  In many ways, along with the Chol Soo Lee case, it was the culmination of the first stage of the Movement that was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and the pre-1980s Asian America.  And the Vincent Chin case helped lay the groundwork for our present moment.

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

At the time, Asian Americans were not protected by hate crime laws.  But the Vincent Chin case helped to change that.   I give a lot of credit to Asian American scholars, who have uncovered the real history of Asian Americans.  It’s a fascinating and startling history of how our lives have been intertwined with the history of race in America.  That’s our story.  I grew up thinking we existed on the margins, that we were this tiny minority that floated around the big American stories.  But in fact, we’ve been smack in the middle of the American story all along.  It took our historians and our scholars to bring it to light.



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