Detroit. Motor City. America’s 20th century economic revival dream city. Achievable middle class through equity. Earn a house, pay for the kids’ college education, and have a locally built car with honest labor, time, and sweat. People did well too. Artistic cultures sprung out like Motown and techno. The city prospered so much that the nation prospered with it. It was the engine. It was the dream. It seemed for a time even black, Latino, native, and Asian workers could share in it.
My family shared in it for a period. My dad worked as a manual laborer during my early childhood. We lived all over the Midwest. In Detroit, it was on one of the “mile roads” made famous by Eminem’s “8-mile”. I wasn’t born when they were living on 10-mile road, and I was really young when Vincent Chin was murdered. His death, however, the circumstances around it, and the no jail sentence of the assailants, one wielding a baseball bat, changed the way I was raised.
The murder and subsequent probation sentence for the Ebens sent one clear message to all Asian Americans: You live in a white America, and your lives are worth less to us.
The Ebens reported to a probation office for three years. The victim’s family lost a son forever. (If it makes you feel better, Ebens apologized thirty years later.)
Young Vincent wasn’t even the “intended” target. The assailants claimed that their anger stemmed from personal frustration at the Japanese automotive industry for ostensibly causing a loss of jobs and wealth. Forgetting for a moment that an American engineer has nothing to do with their frustration, they didn’t assault a Japanese person, they assaulted a Chinese person.
The justification for the brutal assault made no sense, but most of the country didn’t seem to mind it. Yeah, sure, all Asians look the same. It made our individual experiences meaningless; we were fungible. They couldn’t find one ethnicity encompassed within Asian so they killed another. It’s like being angry at the French generally and attacking a Polish person as retribution. Well, we couldn’t find a French person, so we killed a Polish one – he was white enough. Terrible.
Now, the courts endorsed the idea that our lives were worth less. My parents weren’t foolish enough to think we would be getting fair consideration from the police or other governmental authority after Vincent’s murder. We were taught to defend ourselves and siblings right from the beginning in elementary school. We were told to fight viscously, for our lives. Within the home, despite the harsh and punitive upbringing, I never once got punished for fights I got into.
I didn’t know that our household rule of buying only American cars was adopted in response to the Chin case and anti-Asian violence common then as well. I always thought it was something my folks did to assimilate faster and maybe support the local industries. They were trying to avoid inviting any violence.