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Vincent Chin was killed 40 years ago. Here's why his case continues to resonate

Activist and author Helen Zia stands next to a painting of Vincent Chin in Detroit. The city is partnering with The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication Coalition to honor civil rights efforts that began with Chin's killing in 1982.
Corey Williams
Activist and author Helen Zia stands next to a painting of Vincent Chin in Detroit. The city is partnering with The Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication Coalition to honor civil rights efforts that began with Chin's killing in 1982.

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.

It's become particularly relevant in the past two years, as racist attacks against Asian Americans have risen exponentially since the start of the pandemic. At least 10,905 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were recorded from March 19, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2021, according to the coalition Stop AAPI Hate.

Chin's death on June 23, 1982, came at a time when the Japanese automotive industry was a flashpoint for racism. Today's hate incidents can be traced in large partto the anti-Asian rhetoric used at the beginning of the pandemic, including that by former President Donald Trump who referred to the coronavirus as "the Chinese virus."

The similarities between the rhetoric used 40 years ago and today present a chilling pattern, says social justice activist Helen Zia, who is also the executor of the estate of Vincent Chin and his mother, Lily.

"That was what was going on in America in the 1980s. And that's why as soon as that callout in the White House was pointing the fingers at China, everybody Asian American knew that that was going to land very hard on Asians in America," Zia told NPR's All Things Considered in reference to the former president's remarks.

"So, yes, the rhetoric, the innuendo – it has its impact. And when people are targeted and scapegoated, we know that that's only going to be bad for every American."

The fact that Chin was Chinese American, Zia said, is also telling about how Asian Americans are perceived in the U.S.

"Asian Americans have always been lumped together, even though Asia is the largest continent on the planet," she said. "And so when people have hate or anger directed at some nebulous thing about Asia , it doesn't matter. If you're Asian, you're a target. And that's what's going on today. Every different ethnicity of Asian American has suffered the hate incidents that are going on today."

Zia is one of the organizers of the Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance & Rededication happening in Detroit this weekend. Events, including film screenings, public art, performances and panel discussions started on Thursday and go through Sunday.

David Han, commissioner of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, spoke at the official kickoff event. He told member station WDET the rededication also serves as a reminder that "underneath the surface things are not OK," and that people in power play a role in the safety of the communities they represent.

"In leadership roles of any kind, whether it's the presidency or leaders in companies, leaders in our communities or even leaders in our churches, the positions and the narratives that different folks speak, based on self-interest as well as fear, certainly impacts the Asian community in America," Han said.

While political leaders play a role in combating anti-Asian American sentiments, so do average citizens. Connecting the older and younger generations through Chin's legacy is another aim of the commemoration.

"The Vincent Chin Legacy Guide" was put together by Zia, with help from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. It's a teaching tool that tells the story of what happened 40 years ago. It is also meant to inspire people to take action.

It ultimately shows why Chin's case still matters today.

"It really stands out as a landmark, not only for Asian Americans – it stands out as a landmark in American history," Zia said. "It's a time when a people in America, who were treated as though they were aliens — those people stood up and said, 'this is wrong. And not only that — we are a part of the American democracy, and we deserve to be treated as full Americans and full human beings.'"

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Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.