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Vincent Chin's death 40 years ago sparked an Asian American activist movement

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

On this date 40 years ago, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. Chin was Chinese American. His killers, who were white, were fined $3,000 and received no prison time. As Megan Schellong of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports, Chin's murder continues to inspire people to advocate for racial justice.

MEGAN SCHELLONG, BYLINE: University of Michigan American Studies professor Melissa Borja was just 1 month old when Vincent Chin was killed not too far from her hometown. Chin was out to the bars with his friends to celebrate his bachelor party when Ronald Ebens yelled a slur at him. Later that night, Ebens and his stepson chased Chin down the street and hit him with a baseball bat. Chin died four days later of his head injuries. Growing up with the knowledge of Chin's story and seeing her parents' experience as Filipino immigrants, Borja says the anti-Asian racism her family faced influenced her research today.

MELISSA BORJA: It also made me aware of how things could go very wrong very quickly for Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SCHELLONG: In 2020, she started a research initiative studying anti-Asian racism and activism and wrote about the similarities between the '80s and the present.

BORJA: The injustices associated with the Vincent Chin case laid the foundation for activists to move forward and call for justice in 2020.

SCHELLONG: Helen Zia is a Chinese American activist. She was also a budding reporter at the time of Chin's death. She says there was an outcry in the city of Detroit following the judge's ruling that the white men who killed him would walk free.

HELEN ZIA: Not so much because Vincent Chin was Asian, but because it was so clearly a disparity in terms of how people of different races and colors get treated by the criminal justice system.

SCHELLONG: About two weeks after the sentencing, groups of pan-ethnic Asian Americans, for the first time, came together as one collective - The American Citizens for Justice, or ACJ. Zia remembers the feeling behind the movement.

ZIA: That was a - just a time when all Asian Americans realized Vincent Chin was killed. It could have been any one of us.

SCHELLONG: The ACJ kept working towards some form of justice for Chin, and it was their activism that led the federal government to prosecute the case as a hate crime. While Ebens and his stepson never served jail time for their role in Chin's death, they were eventually ordered to pay more than the combined million dollars to the Chin estate.

The pressure the ACJ put on the criminal justice system inspires people like 28-year-old Rebeka Islam to continue working to combat hate crimes. Islam is a Bangladeshi American who grew up outside of Detroit and got her start in activism as a teenager. She's serving as this year's director of Vincent Chin's 40th Remembrance and Rededication. While she didn't learn about Chin's story until a few years ago, she says it's an important one for everyone to know.

REBEKA ISLAM: Vincent Chin's death was pivotal in sparking a massive Asian American activist movement in this country and is a reminder for today's generation to continue to create meaningful change.

SCHELLONG: On this 40th Remembrance, it's people like Borja, Zia and Islam that are working to make sure Vincent Chin's story is shared in the fight for racial justice.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Schellong.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREAMBEATS BY HARRIS HELLER'S "DEJA VU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.