Pretending racism doesn’t exist won’t make it go away

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This is my favorite comic of the past six months. It’s by Portland-based illustrator Natalie Nourigat:

Image for article titled Pretending racism doesn’t exist won’t make it go away

Just four panels. Wisdom for the ages. And yet, the simple truth embedded in this webcomic is regularly disregarded, as we’ve seen repeatedly in just the past few weeks.

Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who refused to pay grazing fees for letting his cattle roam federal lands, became a hero among those protesting “government overreach,” until he famously told The New York Times his opinion of “negroes.” As the world reacted with uproar, he took to CNN to clarify himself. “I’m not racist,” he said, “[But] if I say ‘negro’ or ‘black boy’ or ‘slave,’ if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be offen[ded], then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet….I should be able to say those things and they shouldn’t offend anybody.”

Don Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers whose recorded remarks about African Americans led to a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine, was quick to state that he, too, was not racist, despite ranting at his multiracial girlfriend for daring to take Instagram shots with black people and “bring[ing] them to my games.” His response to the widespread outrage didn’t deny that he made the remarks, but asserted that they didn’t mean he was bigoted: “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.”

The common thread here is that we have reached a point in our culture where it is generally (but not universally) acknowledged that making disparaging remarks about people of other races, cultures, heritages or lifestyles is unacceptable. But we haven’t reached the milestone where people actually refrain from making them. They just make them in private. Or they make them in a context that’s leavened by humor. Or they make them, as Nourigat’s cartoon so aptly highlights, while simultaneously denying that the statements reflect something essential about their actual attitudes and beliefs.

In the cases of Bundy and Sterling, it’s pretty clear that they are, in fact, actually racist. But the urgent desire to erase the appearance of racism, to apply a cosmetic layer to hide the angry scars of the ugliest aspects of our culture and society—that’s something even very well-intentioned individuals frequently indulge.

Another particularly painful example of this occurred this week, when Neal Rubin, a veteran columnist for the Detroit News (and writer of the syndicated comic strip Gil Thorpe) penned an essay titled “What we all assume we know about the Vincent Chin case probably isn’t so.”

The case Rubin’s column referred to was the Jun. 19, 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by former auto worker Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz after an altercation between Chin—celebrating his last few days of bachelorhood with friends—and the duo in a strip club spilled out into the parking lot. Chin fled when Ebens went to retrieve a baseball bat from his car trunk; the pair successfully hunted Chin down, and Nitz immobilized him while Ebens repeatedly smashed his skull, putting him into a coma from which he would never awaken. Chin’s last words, witnesses say, were the simple phrase “It’s not fair.”

None of the above is disputed by Rubin.

What Rubin’s column challenges is whether race was the rationale for Ebens and Nitz’s crime, an assertion that was central to the prosecution’s case. Witnesses claimed that they’d heard Ebens and Nitz taunt Chin with slurs like “nip” and “chink,” and most powerfully, Racine Colwell, a dancer at the club, testified in federal court that she’d heard Ebens shouting at Chin that “It’s because of you little motherfucker that we’re out of work!”

These statements were what turned defense attorneys called a “routine altercation” with tragic consequences into a civil rights crime—that is to say, something prosecutable as a federal offense.

Relying solely on third-hand reports by Tim Kiska, who covered the Ebens trial in 1983 and is now a communications professor for the University of Michigan—Dearborn, ­Rubin suggests that Colwell’s testimony should be discounted. Why? Because she arrived in court “without underwear,” says Kiska, forcing prosecutors to lend her a coat so she could sit down without self-exposure. And because, Kiska says, “She was so wacky, so out to lunch, it was hard to believe her.”

Let’s be clear here that what we’re talking about is one of the most important events in the modern history of Asian America. Chin’s shocking death, and the fact that a sympathetic state judge had given Ebens and Nitz sentences of a mere three years probation and a $3,780 fine each for the brutal killing, galvanized a generation of activists and advocates. (Though Ebens was later convicted at the federal level and sentenced to 20 years, the conviction was overturned on appeal. And a successful civil suit by the Chin family won $1.5 million in damages, which to this day, Ebens has failed to pay.)

Activists walk to the grave of Vincent Chin in Detroit during a 20th anniversary memorial.
Activists walk to the grave of Vincent Chin in Detroit during a 20th anniversary memorial.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The case forged multiethnic and multiracial political coalitions that continue to stand today. It inspired an entire canon of legal scholarship and academic research, not to mention innumerable works of art, literature and performance. And “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”, a feature documentary offering a gripping recount of the events before, during and after the killing, earned its directors, Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, an Academy Award nomination.

He was our Rodney King, our Trayvon Martin.

And yet, just a few days before the beginning of May, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Rubin chose to write a column claiming that the “accepted truth” that race played a role in the case was “almost all…wrong.”

By email, Rubin told me that he was motivated to write his piece because of a recent reference to the case in the New York Times. “The Vincent Chin story has become a familiar piece of the narrative for dumpy, downtrodden Detroit: Two unemployed auto workers beat a Chinese American to death out of anger at the Japanese auto industry,” he said. “The most important part of that sentence, of course, is true. Vincent Chin was murdered by people who could quite reasonably still be in prison. But part is demonstrably untrue, and the one-sentence summation offers no history or context. Still, it’s printed and spoken so often that people everywhere—including Metro Detroit—take it as gospel.”

For someone worried about history and context, Rubin didn’t dig very deep. Had he watched “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” he would’ve seen Colwell on screen, as well as the foreperson of the federal jury that convicted Ebens. “The foreperson said [Colwell’s] testimony was what convinced them that Ebens violated Vincent’s civil rights,” says author and activist Helen Zia, who spearheaded the pan-ethnic organizing of the Asian American community around the incident. “Colwell’s testimony was intelligent and compelling and Rubin apparently never saw her or read her testimony.”

Had he read the transcripts of the multiple trials, he would have known that Colwell’s allegations were actually a small part of a bigger context of evidence. Ebens and Nitz ignored two of Chin’s white friends and chose to stalk Chin and his friend Jimmy Choi, also Chinese. They paid a bystander to assist them in their efforts to hunt Chin down, giving Jimmy Perry $20 to help them “find and catch a Chinese guy” so they could “bust his head in.” Multiple observers testified that Ebens and Nitz referred to Chin by a jumble of different ethnic terms—including “Oriental”—blurring the lines between them in a way that only underscored the racialized context of their animosity.

Amy Lee places flowers at the grave stone of her nephew, Vincent Chin in 2002.
Amy Lee places flowers at the grave stone of her nephew, Vincent Chin in 2002.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

And while he acknowledges in his piece that the climate of Detroit in the 1980s was “angry,” he understates the white-hot intensity of anti-Japanese sentiment in the nation’s auto capital at the time. As Helen Zia wrote in her book Asian American Dreams, when she and other community leaders met with the United Auto Workers seeking their support, Joe Davis, the UAW’s director of fair practices, said that they would condemn the attack on Chin because he was Chinese. “But if he had been Japanese, the attack would have been understandable, and we wouldn’t give you our support,” Davis told her.

Even if Rubin chose not to make the effort to do that research, he could have balanced Kiska’s claims with those of other observers—people like Zia, who was intimately involved in the creation of the federal case against Ebens and Nitz, or Renee Tajima-Peña, co-director of the documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”, who interviewed all the major parties associated with the trial, including Ebens himself. Yet Rubin chose not to include a single Asian American voice in his column, something he regrets in retrospect.

“I always try to keep in mind that there are perspectives I don’t or can’t understand,” he admitted. “This was an instance where I didn’t apply that standard. In hindsight, I should have reached out for more viewpoints.”

Those additional POVs would have provided him with a more complete perspective on Chin and his significance to the Asian American community.

“Chin didn’t fit anyone’s stereotype of a passive, emasculated Asian male who was going to turn the other cheek,” says Tajima-Peña. “He was raised in Detroit, a guy who was comfortable inside and outside the Chinese community. He played football in high school. His friends told me that he wasn’t the type to take any shit. And here he was in a fight with two white guys who outnumbered and outweighed him….What was going on inside Ebens’s head while Chin, an Asian American guy, was kicking his butt?”

What Tajima-Peña points out is that Chin’s primary provocation was unapologetically defending his identity, that is to say, fighting for his right to be an Asian guy in a decidedly “non-Asian” context. And while I won’t try to guess what was going on inside Ebens’s head, as someone who’s encountered similar situations, I have a pretty good idea what was going on inside of Chin’s.

If he’d laughed off Ebens’s comments or ignored them, he might be alive today. But given the toxic atmosphere of Detroit in the ’80s, it was certainly not the first time he’d heard racial slurs—the environment he lived in was saturated with anti-Japanese rhetoric. So maybe he’d let such callouts slide before and chosen to shake his head, to turn away, to move on. Not that day. Not this time. Celebrating his impending marriage, in a rowdy environment, a little bit drunk, Chin decided he wouldn’t let things pass.

And for that, he paid with his life—a life that, to Judge Charles Kaufman, was worth less than the down payment on a new Chrysler.

Vincent Chin didn’t intend to become a boldfaced name in Asian American history. But, as filmmaker Curtis Chin notes, his decision to stand his ground was the event that sparked the convergence of a fragmented set of post-immigrant ethnic communities into a politically engaged Asian Pacific American “race.”

“Vincent Chin’s murder was a turning point in my life,” says Chin, producer of “Vincent Who,” the award-winning 2009 documentary exploring Chin’s contemporary legacy. “I remember my parents sitting me and my siblings down and having that conversation that many minorities families have, and that message was, ‘You’d better be careful. There are some people out there who will hate you, even kill you, based on the color of your skin.’ But this case was also the first time I had seen Asian Americans standing up for ourselves—saying ‘We’re not going to be victims.’ For me as a kid, it was empowering.”

In his responses to my questions, Rubin’s intent is obvious. Like many, he’s eager to turn down the heat that has developed around race; he wants to pull Asians back from the toxicity and vitriol that so often envelops American discourse when race factors into the equation.

“It really seems to bother people to think that Asian Pacific Americans experience racism and discrimination,” notes Zia. “It’s bad enough for them to have to hear it from African Americans and Latinos—but Asians too?”

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts famously wrote in his 2007 “Parents Involved v. Seattle” decision striking down the use of race as a factor in high school admissions that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Rubin, like Chief Justice Roberts, like so many others, appears to believe that by simply ignoring the impact of race on our history and our present, we can move on together into a socially egalitarian and racially harmonious future.

But denying racism doesn’t delete it. It simply allows it to live on in obscurity, drifting in the shadowy margins or lurking beneath the polished surface of polite society, where it can erode our most cherished shared values in secret, or erupt in fits of dark and terrible rage.

As Cliven Bundy and Don Sterling have demonstrated, as much as we claim that something is “not racist,” the “but…” continues to trail on behind it, keeping a foot in the door for the things we’d rather keep hidden.