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 

As I’m sure almost everyone has heard about, a couple of weeks ago the Arizona legislature passed a new law (SB 1070), signed by the Governor, that allows local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an unauthorized immigrant. In making being in the state without authorization a crime, Arizona police can then arrest and begin deportation proceedings against those who cannot properly document that they are legal immigrants.

As many critics of the law point out, the law basically legalizes racial profiling against Latinos, anyone who looks Latino and more generally people of color since it is highly unlikely that this new law can be carried out without the police resorting to racial profiling against the racial/ethnic group most often associated with the issue of unauthorized immigration: Latinos. In other words, it is highly unlikely that Whites will be stopped in large numbers by police and told to prove that they’re in the U.S. legally.

My family and I had plans on visiting Arizona this summer, seeing some friends, and camping at the Grand Canyon (it would have been my daughter’s first visit to the Grand Canyon). But along with many people in the U.S. and around the world who condemn this law, including many Asian Americans, we decided to act on our opposition to this new law by canceling our trip and are now boycotting Arizona. My daughter was disappointed but certainly understands and supports the reason behind it.

Others have written very detailed and convincing critiques of Arizona’s law and I don’t want to just echo what they’ve already said. Instead, I would like to reemphasize some points made by Debra J. Saunders at the San Francisco Chronicle. She points out that while it’s natural and generally for critics of Arizona’s law to focus on Republicans for condemnation, Democrats are not completely free of blame either:

President Obama called the Arizona law “misguided” and said he favors “commonsense comprehensive immigration reform.” It’s all lip service. President Obama reneged on his 2008 campaign pledge to push immigration reform – with a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens – during his first year in office because, well, it’s political poison.

At a Cinco de Mayo event last week, Obama had a new promise – “to begin work this year” on an immigration bill. In Spanish that translates into: Adios, amigos. Of course, not all Latino voters want to relax immigration laws, but to the extent that they do, they have guaranteed that the Democratic Party will take their votes for granted.

Meanwhile, why should Republicans stick their necks out for a demographic that abandoned John McCain in the 2008 presidential election? He risked his political ambitions by pushing for a federal bill with a pathway to citizenship in 2007 and then, according to an Edison/Mitofsky exit poll, McCain won a lousy 31 percent of the Latino vote- down from George W. Bush’s 44 percent in the 2004 presidential contest.

Obama helped kill that bill, and he won 67 percent of the demographic.

When it’s in their interests, Democrats ditch their pro-illegal immigration corner. In 2003, the Democratic California Legislature passed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Voters revolted and recalled Gov. Gray Davis, who signed the measure. In a craven act of cowardice, the Legislature quickly voted to rescind the bill it had passed.

In 2009, the Obama administration deported 5 percent more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration deported in 2008. As part of his immigration reform proposal, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, is pushing for a national ID card for all American workers – the very type of documentation that critics of the Arizona law have said will turn Arizona into the “Your papers, please” state.

Saunders’ last point about Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer deserves particular attention. A few months ago, Schumer and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham laid out their “blueprint” for comprehensive immigration reform (this was before the Arizona law as passed). As printed in the Washington Post, some of their provisions directly mirror the anti-immigrant sentiment that prompted the Arizona law:

We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. . . . We would bolster recent efforts to secure our borders by increasing the Border Patrol’s staffing and funding for infrastructure and technology. More personnel would be deployed to the border immediately to fill gaps in apprehension capabilities.

Other steps include expanding domestic enforcement to better apprehend and deport those who commit crimes and completing an entry-exit system that tracks people who enter the United States on legal visas and reports those who overstay their visas to law enforcement databases. . . .

For the 11 million immigrants already in this country illegally . . . they would be required to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes. These people would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence.

Regardless of their political ideology, almost everyone generally agrees that as it stands, our current immigration system and policies are broken and need to be fixed. For years, conservatives have argued for an strict “enforcement first” approach that focuses on keeping unauthorized immigrants from entering in the first place and deporting as many as possible those already in the U.S. (or at least making life so miserable for them that they voluntarily leave the country).

Historically, Democrats have supported a more forgiving approach to immigration reform that, while acknowledging their unauthorized status, also recognizes the contributions that they make to the economy through sales, income, and other taxes that they pay and in making labor-intensive industries such as agriculture and construction more globally competitive, to name just a few.

But nowadays, as Julia Preston at the New York Times writes, it seems that Democrats have become just as “enforcement-first” as Republicans:

The enforcement would be more far-reaching than anything in place now — or anything proposed by the administration of President George W. Bush. It begins with “zero tolerance” for immigrants trying to enter the country illegally, by tightening border enforcement and by barring them from taking jobs in the United States.

“It shows how far the Democrats have moved in terms of tougher and tougher enforcement,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies immigration. “Across the board you see language that would be very comfortable in a proposal written by Republicans.”

This change in direction by the Democratic Party is not an encouraging sign for supporters of addressing the issue of unauthorized immigration in a more holistic manner (recognizing the humanity of the people involved, the economic reasons many decide to enter the U.S. in the first place, the diversity of the unauthorized immigrant population to include not just border crossers but visa overstayers, and the contributions they make to the U.S.). In fact, while there are still some Democratic politicians who share these beliefs, I would say that as a rule, we can no longer rely on the Democratic party or Democratic politicians to be a staunch ally in terms of supporting a humanistic and holistic approach to comprehensive reform. And as much as I hate to say it, this includes President Obama.

Granted, much of the change in attitude among Democratic politicians toward a stricter “enforcement-first” approach is due to the practical realities of wanting to appeal to their mostly White constituents to get reelected (itself a reflection of the emerging White backlash movement). Nonetheless, for many liberals like me, seeing the Democratic Party distancing itself from their traditional support of true comprehensive immigration reform feels like a kick in the stomach and a betrayal.

At least when it comes to the issue of immigration reform, many within the Democratic Party seem to be making choosing what’s convenient over what’s right.

Following up on my earlier post entitled “White Backlash: Yes, It’s Real,” I will use this post to maintain a continually updated list of news stories that highlight and exemplify various examples of this kind of direct and indirect anti-minority, anti-’foreigner,’ and pro-’traditional American’ mentality and behavior that is increasingly on display throughout American society. The list in in reverse chronological order (most recent stories first). Also, feel free to mention any other examples I missed in the comments section at the bottom.

  • Islamophobia Reaches a Fever Pitch (August 2010)
    Racist and xenophobic opposition to a mosque near Ground Zero and calls by some Christian leaders to burn the Koran on 9/11 illustrates America’s rising hatred of Islam.
  • “Yup, I’m A Racist” T-Shirts for Sale (July 2010)
    Celebrate Independence Day 2010 by proudly proclaiming your racism and do your part to make racism cool.
  • U.S Hospital Fires 4 Filipina Nurses for Speaking Tagalog on Their Lunch Break (June 2010)
    Four Filipina ex-staffers of a Baltimore City hospital haven’t gotten over the shock of being summarily fired from their jobs, allegedly because they spoke Pilipino during their lunch break. . . “They claimed they heard us speaking in Pilipino and that is the only basis of the termination. It wasn’t because of my functions as a nurse. There were no negative write-ups, no warning before the termination,” [Nurse Hachelle Hatano] added.
  • South Carolina State Senator Calls President Obama a “Raghead” (June 2010)
    Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts refers to President Obama and Nikki Haley, a Republican gubernatorial candidate of Indian descent: “We’ve already got a raghead in the White House, we don’t need another raghead in the governor’s mansion.”
  • Arizona Passes Law Censoring Ethnic Studies Programs (May 2010)
    On the heels of the law that critics argue would legalize racial profiling against Latinos, Arizona’s new anti-ethnic studies bill “prohibits classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, that are designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group.”
  • Alabama Governor Candidate Declares “We Speak English” (April 2010)
    Tim James, Republican candidate for Governor of Alabama, releases a TV ad in which he declares, “This is Alabama; we speak English. If you want to live here, learn it” (you can watch the actual ad at the link above).
  • Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration (April 2010)
    Arizona’s new legislation would allow police to question anyone suspected of being an unauthorized immigrant. Critics charge that it basically amounts to legally-sanctioned racial profiling and plan demonstrations, boycotts, and lawsuits to protest and block its implementation.
  • Asian American Legislator Receives Racist Threats After Questioning Palin Visit (April 2010)
    California State Legislator Leland Yee summarizes the racist threats he received from Sarah Palin supporters after questioning her planned visit to a Cal State University campus.
  • John Jay College Accused of Bias Against Noncitizens (April 2010)
    The Justice Department files a lawsuit against John Jay College of Criminal Justice, accusing it of violating provisions of immigration law by demanding extra work authorization from at least 103 individuals since 2007.
  • McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation Irks Civil Rights Leaders (April 2010)
    The Governor of Virginia revives a dormant proclamation that April is “Confederate History Month,” with the initial version of his proclamation omitting any mention of slavery.
  • Male Studies vs. Men’s Studies (April 2010)
    A group of White male academics are trying to create a new academic discipline that highlights the ways in which males (by implication, White males) are apparently an underrepresented and oppressed group in contemporary American society.
  • Racist Fliers Distributed at UW-Oshkosh, St. Norbert College (March 2010)
    An example of how White supremacist hate groups are increasingly capitalizing on this White backlash.
  • UC Regents Sorry for Acts of Hate on Campuses (March 2010)
    Summarizing numerous racist incidents at numerous University of CA (UC) campuses, students and faculty try to get the UC Regents to see that racial ignorance and intolerance is a serious and endemic problem.
  • Meeting Space for Muslim Students at Brandeis is Vandalized (March 2010)
    On the heals of the racist incidents at the University of CA campuses, a newly renovated meeting space for Muslim students at Brandeis University is vandalized.
  • The Year in Nativism (March 2010)
    The Southern Poverty Law Center summarizes notable recent hate crimes against immigrants in 2008 and notes that nativist extremist groups have more than tripled in number, from 144 in 2007 to 309 in 2009.
  • Justice Department Fights Bias in Lending (January 2010)
    Under a new initiative from the Obama administration, the U.S. Justice Department begins targeting the rising predatory practice of “reverse redlining” aimed predominantly at minorities in which “. . . a mortgage brokerage or bank systematically singles out minority neighborhoods for loans with inferior terms like high up-front fees, high interest rates and lax underwriting practices. Because the original lender would typically resell such a loan after collecting its fees, it did not care about the risk of foreclosure.”
  • New Basketball League for Whites Only (January 2010)
    The “All-American Basketball Alliance” announces plans to create a minor league basketball league in which “only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play in the league.”

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the incident in which Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates alleges that he was racially profiled by the Cambridge Police Department after he tried to open the front door of his house that was stuck only to have a neighbor mistakenly think he was a burglar trying to break into the house and call the police, who subsequently arrested him after a confrontation at his house. The following CBS News video summarizes the incident:

For those who are regular readers of this site and blog, it will not surprise you to hear that I am squarely behind Professor Gates on this one for many reasons — being an academic as well, being a person of color, and being a sociologist who studies racial dynamics in this country.

As Professor Gates and his supporters argue, this entire incident is a stark example of the persistence of racial profiling in American society, where many Whites are quick to assume that any Black man in a well-to-do neighborhood is suspicious, where police are much less likely to believe a Black man’s word than a White man’s, and where police are much more likely to arrest a Black man while letting a White man go for the same behavior.

I don’t want to go into a long and detailed analysis about this particular incident nor the legal issue of racial profiling specifically. Some of the better commentaries that I’ve read about the Gates incident can be found at Racism Review, All About Race, and the New York Times.

For those who are interested in delving into the background issues that frame racial profiling (and the related topic of White privilege), I highly recommend starting with some of the books written by Professor Joe Feagin, such as White Racism: The Basics, Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, and The Many Costs of Racism.

Certainly, this is not the first incident of racial profiling in American history. Neither is it the first incident in which an African American professor was arrested trying to do a seemingly routine and mundane task in public. I refer to a 2005 incident involving Antwi Akom, an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University and personal friend of mine, who was stopped from entering his office and subsequently arrested by campus police while his two young daughters were sleeping in his car.

Sadly, these two incidents illustrate many unfortunate points about the state of race relations in American society today. The first is that even Blacks such as Professors Gates and Akom with high-status occupations or professional characteristics are not immune from racism and racial profiling. In fact, incidents like this remind me of a “joke” that an African American mentor told me years ago (please excuse the language, I’m just repeating it as it was told to me): “What does White America call a Black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.”

More generally, these kinds of incidents remind us that, contrary to what many and perhaps most Whites think, race is still a deeply-entrenched issue in American society, just waiting to boil over. As evidence, a second CBS News video summarizes how this incident has touched off a national debate about race relations and racial profiling:

What strikes me the most about not just this particular incident involving Professor Gates, but the reaction of Americans from different racial backgrounds around the country is this: I find it ironic that in general, many (as in a large number but certainly not all) Whites feel unaccustomed and therefore uncomfortable talking about racial issues (this recent article published by the American Psychological Association summarizes this tendency among Whites to avoid talking about race very well). Instead, consciously or unconsciously, they try to be “colorblind” and act like they don’t notice racial differences around them.

In theory, that’s a great idea but in practice and within the realities of American society, it is just not practical and ultimately, naive. The result of this dynamic is that when incidents like this (or when a group of Black and Latino children are turned away by a predominantly White swimming club, or when I notice that virtually all of the people who volunteered to stay and clean up after a Buddhist retreat are people of color) become publicized, many Whites are surprised and taken aback when the “R-word” (racism) is used.

In fact, many Whites become quite defensive when the R-word (or the idea of White privilege) comes up, as though they are being personally accused of acting in a racist way against a person of color, or that they are being told that they are personally more privileged than every single other person of color in the country.

But here’s the problem: what many Whites don’t realize is that one of the reasons why people of color invoke racism as the cause of such incidents is that on a collective and institutional level, we as a society have yet to honestly and fully reconcile our racial history and how it continues to form the basis for the conflicts such as this.

In other words, the fact that many Whites don’t want to or can’t talk about racism (as well-meaning and well-intentioned as they are) is part of the reason why racism still exists. In fact, this inability or unwillingness to discuss racism is a big reason why many Whites get defensive when the topic of racial discrimination or White privilege comes up — they are not able to depersonalize the issue, place it outside of their own personal experiences, and examine it from it from an institutional point of view.

Ultimately, this is also why relationships, opinions, experiences, and conversations between Whites and non-Whites on the individual and institutional levels remain emotionally fraught beneath the superficial veneer of colorblindness and in fact, will continue to boil over for the foreseeable future.

Yes, denial that race is a problem is part of the problem. And the more most Americans deny it, the more it festers and the more it erodes our sense of national identity and unity. The fact that this incident has become a national controversy should be plenty of proof that race is still a unresolved issue in this country. For those who think that I’m being “extremist,” or even “racist,” then take a look at the following NBC News video from this past weekend that basically says the exact same thing: