The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Infamous Vincent Chin Murder in 1982 Didn't Happen the Way it's Often Portrayed


I always find it disturbing when an incident that "I know" turns out to have been quite different from how it's consistently reported and what I believed to be true.

Here's the standard media version of the Chin murder, via NPR last year:

Forty years ago, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was enjoying a night out with his friends in Detroit. It was meant to be a celebration ahead of Chin's upcoming marriage, but he didn't make it to the wedding. That night he was beaten to death by two white men who worked in the auto industry and, according to witnesses, were angry over what they perceived as the loss of American jobs to Japanese imports.

The men targeted Chin because he was Asian – not knowing he was Chinese American, not Japanese. The killing galvanized Asian Americans across the entire country to fight for civil rights. It's a battle that continues today.

Here's what I learned about the incident when reading lawprof Robert Chang's book Disoriented: Asian Americans, Law, and the Nation-State while researching my book Classified and then doing a bit more research:

Chin was drinking at a bachelor party at a strip club. He got into a verbal dispute with some white patrons. At trial, one witness, a stripper at the club, testified that the white patrons, auto workers, made racial remarks related to the loss of auto jobs to the Japanese. However, the defendants denied it, and the witness who so testified received a lighter sentence for another matter in exchange for her testimony, raising doubts about her credibility.

As for the violence, Chin threw the first punch in the bar. When they were all kicked out of the club, he yelled to the white men in the parking lot, "Come on you chickenshits, let's fight some more." That should have been the end of the incident.

Instead, the white guys tracked him down at a McDonald's (after telling a black man they would pay him $20 for helping them find "a Chinese guy"—so much for not realizing he was Chinese) and beat him severely. He became unconscious and died.

That's enough for me for a murder conviction, which is what the defendants were charged with. The district attorney, however, agreed to allow them to plead guilty only to manslaughter. Outrageously, in line with the probation office's recommendation, the killers received probation based on their lack of criminal history. This was said to be standard in Wayne County for first-offense convictions for manslaughter; if so, the DA should not have agreed to the manslaughter plea.

The ridiculously lenient sentence galvanized activists, in part because the possible racial angle of the incident was highlighted and exaggerated, and also because the light sentence was blamed on the judge. The judge had been interned in a Japanese POW camp during World War II and was therefore suspected of harboring racial animosity to Asians. Moreover, some of his remarks at sentencing seemed to display undue sympathy for the defendants.

So there was, imho, clear injustice in this case. The killers were let off way too easily, and there was justified outrage about that. But contrary to how the case has been remembered, it's not clear that the altercation itself was racially motivated, and the  notion that Chin was set upon randomly by autoworkers is false.