Hate crime legislation did not always exist because the concept that a group of persons of minority status deserved special legal protection was not a popular sentiment until the 1990’s. Racialized tension has always been a historical American problem of epic proportions that has been dealt with many failures and some successes.
Documentaries are permanent time pieces that capture the essence of a person, place, or event. The Public Broadcasting Station produces many fantastic documentaries about a wide array of subjects. To find a documentary that is a few years old and genuinely well done is an exciting feat for a documentary junkie. Who Killed Vincent Chin is one of those documentaries rarely found, a diamond in the rust.
The premise of the documentary is the murder of Vincent Chin by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, his stepson. Chin was a Chinese-American man who lived in Detroit during the 1980s and was engaged to be married. During the 1980’s the American car industry, located in Detroit, suffered a number of set backs as they industry honchos mismanaged changing demands of the consumer while car producers in Japan appealed to the desires of car drivers in American markets. This caused the car industry in America to plummet, leading to a decrease in jobs in American car manufacturing plants, and as a result, it became that there were many angry unemployed working class people living in Detroit. Unemployment is a problem because it causes a decrease in self-esteem, motivation, productivity, and overall quality of life.
There has always been a problem of racism within the American frame of mind. Making wild generalizations about an ethnic or racial group is a disdainful American tradition, and white solipsistic perspective often erases ethnicities within a racial group. For example, Vincent Chin was Chinese-American but died because he was suspected of being Japanese. For Ronald Ebens, the man who bashed Chin’s head in with a baseball bat, this was explanation enough for the attack:
Racine Colwell was a dancer at Fancy Pants, a Detroit strip-club that was frequented during the evening by the working class men of the auto plant industry. Chin and Ebens had had a verbal spat at the club that then carried into the parking lot. Instead of continuing the verbal spat, the disagreement turned into a hate crime because of Eben’s prejudice against Chin for being of Asian descent.”You little motherfuckers” is the phrase that is contentious as to whether or not this attack was a hate crime at the time of trial. Appallingly, Ebens was not convicted of murder despite the attack being witnessed by two off duty police officers, but plead guilty to second degree manslaughter while serving no jail time, instead being fined several thousand dollars. Many in the Asian community felt that this was a clear instance of white privilege at work keeping a white man free of the confines of jail or prison while an entire ethnic and racial group was failed by justice.
In the 1980’s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was recently enacted legislation that dictated protection for discrimination based on racial prejudice. Social change is not the same mechanism as legal change but both are affected by one another and both are gradual processes that require compromise and understanding of nuances. Legal change is an instant moment that can be measured by victory and success or failure. Social change is a story based around millions of lives interconnected by a narrative thread. Understanding of the Civil Rights Act is not the same landmark event as the accomplishment of passing it.
Ebens was given wide latitude by the police and the legal system because of the historical standing of white male privilege. Hate crimes were common events in areas like the South and bodily violence against non-white bodies was common, and as current events across the country exhibit, is still common today. In the documentary, Ebens himself expresses surprise that he did not go to prison for murder. There is clearly something off in this case, something working toward the expression of Eben’s liberty at the expense of justice for Chin’s murder. The police did not interview the dancers from the club who saw the verbal altercation. The District Attorney downgraded a senseless murder to manslaughter, a charge that in layman’s terms mean’s “this person didn’t mean to kill anyone it just happened”. Killing someone with a baseball bat, bashing a person’s skull in like you were hitting a home run is not an accident. It is intentional, there is malice, and there is hatred. It is a personal way to kill someone, to express rage.
There is a point in the film when public rage was expressed by literally bashing Japanese cars with sledgehammers. There is a curious correlation between violence done to people and violence done to things. For example, during the Nazi era, there were public book burning that were held in order to express fascistic rage at liberal or communist ideas. The idea that there is a correlation between burning books and burning people by this group of radical fascists is logical. In Detroit, it went from people smashing Japanese cars to smashing Japanese bodies. Racialized hatred is a clear act of defiance of peace. Violence is an expression of hatred.
Federally, Ebens was convicted of federally violating Chin’s civil rights and given a twenty-five year sentence that was later overturned on a technicality. Hate crime legislation did not yet exist, so the idea that minority groups have a special status of protection within the law was not a legal concept. The film contains many allegories that Ebens was not in any way a racist man because he either worked with racial minorities at the auto plant, or because his daughter had tutored an Asian boy in school. These are instances of white nonsense, a way to whitewash making racialized hatred normal by virtue of interacting with racial minorities. This is illogical and attempts to appeal to emotional manipulation. Nitz’s girlfriend even contends that he was even happy to be on unemployment because he could “collect all this money” while doing things like taking trips and apparently, beating up Asian men.
Meaningful social transformations must be supported by legal action and accomplishment. Hate crimes are a necessary legal protection in order to ensure that groups who are minorities have the correct protection from unnecessary aggression.