Editor’s note: Erika L. Moritsugu is Deputy Assistant to the President and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Senior Liaison at the White House.
Krystal Ka‘ai is Executive Director of the White House Initiative and President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
Last Sunday, we spent the afternoon at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan, watching as a stream of mourners laid flowers at the base of Vincent Chin’s grave. As we each stopped to place our own pair of red and white carnations near his headstone, we thought about how his legacy galvanized a civil rights coalition that still endures to this day — and profoundly shaped our work in public service.
On the night of June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was brutally attacked by two white assailants in Detroit during a time of rising anti-Asian prejudice. Resentful of Japan’s ascendant auto industry, Ronald Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned 27-year-old Chin with a baseball bat while his stepson, Michael Nitz, held him down. Chin, a Chinese American draftsman at a U.S. local auto supplier company, died a few days later from his injuries. Instead of celebrating his wedding, his family was forced to plan his funeral.
As xenophobic rhetoric and violence have continued to rise throughout the pandemic, we have heard from Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) community members who say little has changed four decades after Chin’s death. This is no surprise to us. After all, anti-Asian sentiment has seared indelible marks into our nation’s fabric for generations. This includes shameful chapters in our nation’s history such as the Page Act of 1872 that barred the immigration of Chinese women to the U.S., the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the deadly scapegoating of South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh Americans after 9/11. Unfortunately, too many in our communities know someone affected by the latest wave of hatred.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to ignore the progress that has been made, thanks to Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, as well as civil rights activists and community leaders in Detroit and beyond. Through grief and outrage, they helped to unify disparate ethnic groups under the banner of “Asian America” and spurred the creation of an interracial, interfaith infrastructure necessary to respond to racial injustice that continues to inspire change today.
The Biden-Harris Administration has also stepped up to challenge the prejudices that drove Chin’s heinous slaying. Since their first days in office, President Biden and Vice President Harris have condemned xenophobic rhetoric, and the Administration has taken decisive action to promote belonging and inclusion by amplifying our stories and building a government that reflects America’s diversity. This includes our appointments as the first-ever White House Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Senior Liaison and the first-ever Native Hawaiian Executive Director of the White House Initiative.
In May 2021, President Biden reinvigorated the White House Initiative and President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Over the past year, hundreds of federal employees and allies have been hard at work coordinating a comprehensive, whole-of-government response to the rise in anti-Asian bias.
While there is still work to be done, these early efforts have already borne fruit. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rolled out new guidance to raise awareness and address hate crimes. With the implementation of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, the Administration has appointed the first hate crimes coordinator within the Justice Department, bolstered the tracking and reporting of anti-AA and NHPI hate crimes and hate incidents, and prioritized language access so that victims can receive help in more than a dozen Asian languages.
Many federal agencies are working in partnership with community leaders to reduce cultural and linguistic barriers, expand access to vital services, and address the systemic lack of disaggregated data. And beyond policy change, we have established a Regional Network and Interagency Working Group of federal officials that is focused on ensuring that the government is truly responsive to your needs.
A recent survey found that only 33 percent of Americans are familiar with Vincent Chin’s murder – suggesting that we have a long way towards recognition of one of our nation’s darkest moments. That is why we are heartened by the growing efforts to teach AA and NHPI history, as well as President Biden’s recent enactment of legislation to pave the way for the creation of a national museum dedicated to celebrating AA and NHPI history and culture.
While 40 years have passed since Vincent Chin’s death, his name has not faded from our memory and continues to fuel efforts to advance equity and justice. It is on all of us to sustain the movement he inspired, stand together in coalition, and make certain that his legacy is forged into the minds of generations to come.
Because all people, not just Asian Americans, deserve to learn and honor his story.
All images via White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders