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.

Taking America Back

In a foreword to We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden, Nic Stone (Dear Martin) writes of her Indian American high school US history teacher, a Mr. Tripathi and how remarkable it was that he, an immigrant, was teaching US History in one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools in the state of Georgia. Yet they never talked about the fact that they were the only two brown-skinned people in that classroom. It wasn’t something you did, back then.

IMG_3372.jpgWe Are Not Yet Equal is all about talking plainly of what has remained unmentionable for too many years. It’s a YA adaptation of Emory University professor Carol Anderson’s White Rage in which she laid out the patterns of advancement and retreat from ideals of equality and away from the deep injustices of centuries of slavery.

The Anderson and Bolden adaptation employs historical narrative to shed light on the measures taken for generations by white people, from assaults upon progressive policy to the most utterly absurd legal contortions, to keep Black resolve from succeeding and Black aspirations from being realized. The book pulls no punches—accounts of Mary Turner’s 1918 lynching in Georgia and Ossian Sweet’s 1925 ordeal when trying to move into a white neighborhood in Detroit (and his subsequent suicide in 1960) are just a couple of examples. They’re unflinching in both their clarity and their compassion toward the victims of these crimes.

Some young readers may be shocked to learn that Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th amendment until 2013. That narratives of white innocence were rampant in the Nixon election campaign! That lack of equal access to education held back American technological advancement. And so much more.

The book ends on the fringes of the present time with Dylan Roof’s murder of nine black people in Emmanuel AME Church and Donald Trump’s 2015 electoral promise to “take America back.” It urges us to imagine a different future, one that really looks forward, takes the opportunity to defuse white rage.