Anti-Asian violence in the US dates from Gold Rush
By Gary Libby
News of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848 quickly reached Guangdong Province in China, and like people all over the world, many Guangdongese headed to California to seek their fortunes. Among the approximately 67,000 people who came to California during the gold rush years, about 20,000 were Chinese, mostly from Guangdong, who shared the dream of achieving instant wealth in the land of “Gam Saan,” the Golden Mountain.
From the earliest days of Chinese immigration, and then during periods of immigration from other Asian countries, immigrants were subjected to racial discrimination and physical violence, including mass murders by the European American population. Racial discrimination eventually resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, legislation which severely restricted the immigration of a whole ethnic group for the first time in American history.
The dominant attitude of white Californians to the Chinese at the time was summed up in the 1854 California Supreme Court ruling in People v. Hall, which reversed a white man’s murder conviction on the grounds that Chinese witnesses had been allowed to testify against him. The court’s decision alluded to the possibility that allowing Chinese to testify “would admit them to all equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls,” something the court said was not mainly speculation, “but it is an actual and present danger.” In the court’s opinion, the Chinese were people, “Whose mendacity was proverbial; a race of people whom nature, marked as inferior, who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point; as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference.”
In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law which prohibited the importation of women from China, Japan, or any other “Oriental” country for the purposes of prostitution. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers and lasted until December 17, 1943. The effect of these laws was to freeze the percentage of Chinese women in the U.S. at a low level, and perpetuate a “bachelor” society of Chinese men in America.
During the 1870s and 1880s, there were 153 anti-Chinese riots in the American West, many of which resulted in violence against Chinese people. Some of these riots stand out because of their scale. One example is the 1871 lynching and mass murder that took place in Los Angeles, which at the time had a population of about 6,000 people, of whom about 200 were Chinese. A mob of about 500 white men attacked Chinatown, and began shooting, stabbing, and hanging people, resulting in the deaths of 28 Chinese men. In 1872, nine members of the mob were convicted of manslaughter, but their convictions were overturned on a technicality by the California Supreme Court.
In May 1887, as many as 34 Chinese miners were ambushed, robbed, and murdered by a gang of white men. The crime was discovered when some of the bodies, which had been thrown into the Snake River, were spotted near Lewiston, Idaho Territory, 65 miles away. The bodies showed signs of torture. In 1888, a grand jury indicted six men for murder. Three of them fled and were never caught. The other three were acquitted by a jury. Nobody was ever punished for those murders.
Anti-Asian violence has continued to the present day, such as a spate of attacks in May in Dallas on businesses owned by Asian Americans, and the murder of eight women in the Atlanta area in 2021, six of whom were of Asian descent. But 40 years ago this month, a particularly well-known incident was the brutal murder of Vincent Chin by two white auto industry workers. The murder followed a brawl that took place in a Detroit-area strip club, where Chin had been celebrating his bachelor party with friends. There was a brief fight between Chin and the two workers inside that club. Chin and his friends were waiting for another friend to leave the club when the two men came out and engaged in a verbal altercation with Chin. When one of the autoworkers got a baseball bat from the trunk of his car, Chin and his friends ran away. The workers spent about a half hour searching the area and eventually found Chin at a McDonalds. Chin tried to escape but one of the assailants held him while the other bludgeoned him with the baseball bat, yelling racial slurs. A policeman who witnessed the beating said the assailant swung the bat like he was swinging for a home run. Chin was immediately rushed to a hospital where he was unconscious when he arrived. He never regained consciousness and died on June 23, 1982, after being in a coma for four days.
The two auto workers were arrested for the initial assault and, after Chin’s death, they were charged with second-degree murder. They were convicted of manslaughter by a judge in a county court, after a plea bargain brought the charges down from second-degree murder. They served no jail time and were given three years’ probation, fined $3,000, and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. In a response letter to protests from American Citizens for Justice, the judge said, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”
The verdict angered Asian American communities in the Detroit area and around the country, who led a fight for federal charges to be brought. The two murderers were eventually accused of two counts of violating Chin’s civil rights. For these charges to be proven, it was not enough that one of the autoworkers had murdered Chin, but that the murders be motivated by race, color, or national origin. Because of possible mitigating factors that could lead to reasonable doubt – such as intoxication – possibly leading to the defendant’s inability to form specific murderous intent, the evidence of uttered racial slurs was not, in itself, sufficient for conviction.
But the 1984 federal civil rights case against the men found the autoworker who swung the bat guilty of the second count, and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. The worker who held Chin while he was beaten was acquitted of both counts. After an appeal, that conviction was overturned in 1986 when a federal appeals court found that an attorney had improperly coached prosecution witnesses.
After a retrial, the case was moved to Cincinnati due to the publicity the case had received in Detroit, and a jury cleared the murderer of all charges in 1987.
Chin’s mother returned to Guangzhou, China, rather than stay in the Detroit area where she was reminded of her son’s death.
Portland’s Asian American communities plan a candlelight vigil on June 19, marking the 40th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s murder.
The 1988 Academy Award nominated film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, will air on Monday, June 20, at 10:00 p.m. on PBS.
Gary Libby is a member of the Chinese American Friendship Association of Maine.