Today, June 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.

Portrait of Vincent Chin

Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.

Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.

Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.

Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian- and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.

The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.

As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.

This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

For most academics who study racial/ethnic relations, we almost exclusively focus on civilian society. But what are such relations like in the military? You might recall that the military was one of the first American institutions to desegregate, occurring in 1948 through Executive Order 9981.

To help us compare racial/ethnic relations in the military versus civilian life, as Newsweek magazine reports, University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lundquist recently published a comprehensive study that contains some interesting findings:

The study of over 30,000 active duty personnel suggests that the armed forces’ social hierarchy—explicitly based on rank—overrides many of the racial or gender biases in civil society, which tend to act as barriers for women and minorities in career advancement. . . .

In civilian society African-Americans generally express higher dissatisfaction with their jobs than their white counterparts and are less committed. But Lundquist’s study of 30,000 active-duty personnel found that those norms are largely flipped in the military.

She looked at five measurements of career satisfaction, including overall quality of life and opportunities for advancement, and found African-American women to be the most positive and satisfied with their jobs, followed by African-American men, Latinas, Latinos and white women. White men are the least satisfied with their military careers, rating their satisfaction and overall happiness with their jobs much lower.

“It’s not that the military environment treats white males less fairly; it’s simply that, compared to their peers in civilian society, white males lose many of the advantages that they had,” Lundquist says. “There’s a relative deprivation when you compare to satisfaction of peers outside of the military.”

I should provide the disclaimer that Prof. Lundquist is a colleague and also a good friend of mine. Nonetheless, her research findings are quite compelling in their own right.

To summarize, those findings are that within the military, there is a much more stringent set of regulations regarding how personnel are judged and promoted. Based on this structure, outcomes do not differ nearly as much by race/ethnicity as they do in civilian society, where such criteria is much less standardized.

Therefore, Whites in the military generally do not enjoy the same privileges of being White that their counterparts enjoy in civilian life and conversely, people of color fare better and have higher levels of life satisfaction than their counterparts in civilian life.

Prof. Lundquist’s results also show that women report higher levels of satisfaction inside the military than do men, although the specific details are a little more complicated. In the end, as the Newsweek article sums up, “There’s a very clear contrast in job satisfaction between civilian and military society, and it seems to come down to the military’s meritocractic structure.”

Of course, Americans continue to debate the institutional morality of the military’s existence and the role it plays in international affairs, but that’s a separate question. The take-home message here seems to be, in regard to fostering racial/ethnic equality, apparently American civilian society can learn a few lessons from its military.