The 1982 attack against Vincent Chin redefined hate crimes and energized a push for today’s stronger legal protections. (Mural by Anthony Lee.)

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The Crime That Fueled an Asian American Civil Rights Movement

Producer/Narrator: Joseph Hogan

We explore the legacy of Vincent Chin, whose killing in 1982 set the stage for stronger hate crime legislation.

Chin, a 27-year-old Asian American, was beaten with a baseball bat in Detroit, at a time when anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise. One witness said the attack, which began at a bar where Chin was celebrating his recent engagement, looked “as if a baseball player was swinging for a home run.” He died of his injuries several days later.

Despite the brutality of the attack, Chin's assailants never spent a day in jail for the death. Family members and other allies pressured the Justice Department to prosecute the attackers for violating his civil rights. In a federal trial, a jury found one defendant guilty, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. But on appeal, that man went free.

“It was a moment of total outrage, total shock," Helen Zia, an Asian American activist, told Retro Report. "How could this be? You beat a man to death and you get probation?”

Even though the case ended with an acquittal, it set a precedent that racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans could be prosecuted as hate crimes, and new legislation soon followed. Over time, federal hate crime law was expanded to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

“It’s important to prosecute hate crimes because we need accountability," said Stanley Mark, senior staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization. "This kind of conduct, particularly the motivation behind it, feeds into this climate of hate and fear.”

This week marked the launch of the Vincent Chin Institute, a national network of activists working to fight anti-Asian hate. The institute was founded by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Zia, who is the executor of the estate of Vincent and Lily Chin.

“Today's pandemic of anti-Asian hate has uncanny parallels to the anti-Asian hate of the 1980s," Zia said in a statement. "Vincent Chin’s legacy will continue to advance the ideals of equal justice; solidarity against racism and hate that Lily Chin courageously stood for; and respect for the individuals and communities who stood together for justice for Vincent Chin."

This film contains archival footage that originally appeared in “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” the 1987 film directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

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