Racism as a Covid-19 Side-effect, Part II: Paula Yoo on Vincent Chin and the Importance of Speaking Out Against Injustice

In early 2017, the name of a 27-year old Chinese American man in Detroit, Vincent Chin, made headlines. A rash of violent hate crimes aimed at Indian American men had just happened within weeks of each other. In February 2017, two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, were shot in a bar outside of Kansas City after the shooter reportedly yelled, “Get out of my country.” Srinivas Kuchibhotla died in the hospital soon after he was shot. The suspect was charged with premeditated first-degree murder, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison in 2018. A month after the 2017 attack, Harnish Patel, an Indian man who had lived in the United States with his family for fourteen years, was shot and killed outside of his home in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Paula Yoo (author of Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank) sent me an excerpt from her YA nonfiction proposal for a book about Vincent Chin, currently under contract :

[Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo. Button ©InclusiveRandomness]

“Since the February death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the first bias fatality of the Trump era, one question has been coursing through South Asian-American circles: was this hate-crime killing in Olathe, Kansas their ‘Vincent Chin moment’?” Arun Venugopal, a race reporter with WNYC and a contributor to NPR. “Chin was a Chinese-American in Detroit who was beaten to death by two white men in 1982. His death is credited with sparking a pan-Asian-American activist movement.”

That book is now due out in 2021 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s new children’s book imprint called Norton Young Readers. Paula writes:

Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit in 1982. Although the two men pled guilty to manslaughter, the judge gave them a fine of about $3000 and a sentence of three years probation. This shockingly lenient sentence angered the Asian American community in Detroit. Their anger led to activism as they joined forces to fight for Vincent’s justice, leading to the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. The first trial resulted in a guilty conviction for the killer (the man who held the bat) in 1984. But the killer never spent a day in jail because the conviction was appealed and overturned in 1986 due to a legal technicality.

Still, Vincent’s death was not in vain – he became a symbol of justice for the Asian American community. There have been two documentaries about this case, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award. In the almost 40 years since his death, Vincent Chin’s name is always mentioned whenever anti-Asian racism happens.

His name has been in the news this year ever since Trump insisted on referring to Covid-19 with the racist moniker, “The Chinese Virus,” at press briefings, which has led to a rise in almost 1,500 anti-Asian hate crimes being reported this year according to statistics from the FBI and the “Stop AAPI Hate” crime tracker provided by the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. Although what happened to Vincent was tragic, his killing provided the spark which galvanized the Asian American movement and the #AAPI community. His name and his story remind us never to be complacent whenever we witness anti-Asian racism… that we must always speak out and fight back against injustice.

It’s happening right now. Again. When we talk about getting “back to normal,” after Covid-19 is behind us, we ought to think long and hard about what kind of normal we want.

Racism as a Covid-19 Side-effect, Part I: Bao Phi on Sustaining Community

The pandemic has unfortunately caused hate incidents against Asian Americans to rise across the United States. Asian Canadians too report incidents of abuse. I asked spoken word artist and writer Bao Phi: How are you sustaining yourself in these circumstances?

He writes:

I alternate between being enraged and being depressed. Of course, this is nothing new – the color of my skin and the shape of my features has marked me as an enemy my entire life. Racist xenophobia, informed by militaristic, colonialist imperialism, is nothing new to Asians. But it is certainly magnified now. My former partner once observed that Asian Americans are positioned to be victims of vigilante violence – we saw this after 9-11, towards Arabs, South Asians, and anyone who presented as Middle Eastern – and of course Japanese Americans were wrongly incarcerated after Pearl Harbor. It’s happening again now.

How do you maintain stability yourself?

To be honest, I am unwell, and when I am unwell, I find it very difficult to concentrate on my own craft. I am constantly alternating between rage, to being on edge, to fear, to sadness. I should also mention that I am a single co-parent, and doing my best to be honest with my child about the happenings in the world without filling her full of despair and fear. She already has a heightened sensitivity to danger. It takes all my energy and will to hold things together while I’m with her. 

Bao’s efforts are leaning toward sustaining community.

Instead of focusing on my own craft, I am trying to encourage other Asian Americans to share their stories at the collective Asian American social justice website, www.unmargin.org. I am also doing a lot of reading. And for my work at the Loft, I am working both behind the desk and in front of it as we pivot towards online events. 

If humankind could only take this as a point of reflection and not an opportunity to turn on one another….but I think Bao’s right, this is nothing new.

More on this subject soon from writer Paula Yoo.