MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to turn to an event that for decades now has been considered a pivotal moment in civil rights history, especially in leading a generation of young Asian-Americans into activism.
Thirty years ago, a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was celebrating his upcoming wedding at a bachelor party at a bar in Detroit. At some point that evening, Chin got into a fight with Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, who then beat Vincent Chin with a baseball bat so badly, he later died.
Witnesses say the two men used racial slurs, and believing Chin was Japanese, allegedly blamed him for the loss of jobs. The two men who killed him did not go to prison. They were, instead, sentenced to three years of probation and fined a few thousand dollars.
Our next guest says that episode and the punishment - or lack thereof - sparked a new activism among Asian-Americans around the country, including his own. Frank Wu is the dean of the University of California Hastings College of Law. He was a teenager growing up just outside Detroit when Chin was killed, and he's now writing a book about the case and he's with us now.
Welcome back, Dean Wu. Thank you so much for speaking with us once again.
FRANK WU: Great to be with you today.
MARTIN: Now, you wrote a piece called "Why Vincent Chin Matters" for the New York Times on what would have been right around the 30th anniversary of Chin's death, but I wondered if I could get you to take me back to when you were a teenager, how you heard about this case and what it brought up for you.
WU: Sure. Well, like most teenagers, like most kids, I wouldn't have wanted to talk about civil rights or race or ethnicity, but I always knew that my family was different. We were the only Oriental family on the block. That term was still in use then, sort of suggesting exoticism, and so I faced the childhood cruelties on the playground, the common slurs, you know, being called chink or Jap or gook, being asked if I ate dogs, how I could see with eyes like that, the usual teasing and taunting.
And, you know, kids don't want to think about that, don't want to have anything to do with that, and so I always thought maybe it was just me. You know, I didn't know about civil rights because I was a kid and my parents didn't speak the language of civil rights because they literally spoke a different language.
So I read about the Chin case in the newspaper, like so many others, and in that moment I realized that it wasn't me, that it wasn't in my head, that even though I hadn't faced that type of violence, I'd heard the same words, I had heard the same sentiments, no matter how hard I tried to assimilate, to fit in, having been born in this country.
That case made me see that - well, as people used to say, you all look the same, that it didn't matter if you were Chinese or Japanese, that they would tease and taunt and that that could lead to much, much worse.
MARTIN: You said that the Vincent Chin case was a major turning point because it showed the power of, quote, "you all look the same," and that it kind of unified people of different national origins into kind of a shared consciousness about activism. And do you think that is, in part, part of the reason that you became a lawyer and a civil rights lawyer and followed the course that you did?
WU: Absolutely. I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid. My parents bought me a drafting table at a garage sale and I would sit in the basement and draw houses, but this case made me see the importance of standing up and speaking out. And no one had ever seen that before. No one had seen angry Asian-Americans marching, carrying banners, as they did - not just in Detroit, the Motor City, where this occurred, my hometown - but across the nation. Vincent Chin's grieving mother - she'd lost her husband, Vincent's father, just a few months before.
She traveled the country giving speeches, meeting with the Justice Department, and this became a rallying point. People said remember Vincent Chin or justice for Vincent Chin, and it remains that way today. It's a case that captures everything about the Asian-American experience, not just you all look the same, but that you're a perpetual foreigner.
You know, what the father and stepson who killed Chin with the baseball bat - what they allegedly said - now, they've always denied it. They've said no, no, we're not bigots, which to me makes the case even more troubling and compelling because if they're just ordinary people at a bar, that means that it could be any ordinary person at a bar.
But what they said was this. It's because of you little - and then there's a word that we can't say on the air.
MARTIN: Uh-huh. We don't use. Yeah. Epithet.
WU: Yeah. It's because of you little blank that we're out of work. And then they used racial slurs. That's what various witnesses said. So it didn't matter that Chin was Chinese, not Japanese, that he was an American, that he was just like them. You know, he had a temper too, too much testosterone. He'd, you know, had a few drinks that night. Except for the color of skin, the texture of hair and the shape of his eyes. So the irony here is that these were all working class guys, ordinary guys.
Chin was not - he didn't set out to be a hero or a martyr. He was just looking forward to getting married, and he was killed on the night of his bachelor's party. What more all-American, you know, activity could there be?
MARTIN: But before we let you go - we have about a minute left, and as we said, you are writing a book about this case, so I do hope you'll come back and talk to us more about the book as your investigation goes further. But as you said, the two men have denied all along that racial epithets were said or that race was a part of it at all. They said it was a bar fight that went wrong.
And I wondered if, you know, 30 years on, does that even matter?
WU: Right. Well, we frame this in stark black and white. It's either a bar brawl or it's a hate crime. Maybe it's both. Maybe it's ordinary people who, you know - no one these days stands up and says that's right, I'm a racist. And that's what's scary about this case.
According to the two defendants, they just snapped. That was their word. They just snapped and - for whatever reason. And we can't look into their hearts or minds, but that's why we should care about this case, that two people could take a baseball bat out of the trunk of their car and crack open someone's head. Now, whatever the motivation, that's a little more than a bar brawl.
MARTIN: Frank Wu, I hope you'll come back and talk to us when you finish your book.
WU: That would be great.
MARTIN: Frank Wu is the dean of the UC Hastings College of the Law. He's also writing a book about the Vincent Chin case and he was kind enough to join us from San Francisco.
Dean Wu, thank you.
WU: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.