On June 23, 1982, thirty-four years ago today, two unemployed Detroit auto workers (both white) were hanging out at a strip club called Fancy Pants in Highland Park. At the same time, a Chinese-American named Vincent Chin was there having his bachelor party. Drunkenly, the white auto workers began harassing him and his party, at one point yelling according to witnesses, "It's because of you motherfuckers we're out of jobs!" Chin did in fact work tangentially in the auto industry as a draftsman for a parts supplier on the outskirts of Detroit. Unless the Chinese auto industry was more relevant in 1982 than anyone outside of Fancy Pants knew, it is assumed that the hecklers thought Chin was Japanese. Close enough for angry white people, I guess.
Chin, according to witnesses, exercised his God-given right to fuck with drunk assholes, making fun of them and verbally egging them on. So they responded in that whitest, malest of ways, scouring the neighborhood for a half-hour after the club emptied out before finding Chin in a McDonald's, presumably drunkenly waylaying some fries. They waited until he emerged and then beat him to death in the street with a baseball bat. Any number of the blows to his head once he was unconscious could have been the fatal one. Witnesses, of which there were many, reported hearing them yell further racial slurs at him.
Beating a person to death in front of an audience with the knowledge that one is unlikely to be punished is something Americans usually associate with white-on-black violence in the pre-Civil Rights South, but it worked in 1982 Detroit as well. The Wayne County prosecutor and judge not only allowed them to plea-bargain down from 2nd Degree Murder (murder without premeditation, which is actually kind of dubious here given the length of time they spent searching for their intended victim, but we'll let that slide) to Manslaughter, but he noted that "These aren't the kind of men you send to jail" when releasing them immediately with a small fine and three whole years of probation.
It doesn't take a very deep reflection on the current state of the country to realize that little has changed in the last 34 years. Any behavior up to and including cracking someone's skull with a baseball bat is acceptable as long as the perpetrators are white, the victims aren't Real Americans anyway, wink, and white people have sufficient cause to be (choose one: angry, scared). The lesson we refuse to learn from the murder of Vincent Chin and thousands of other crimes like it is that the more we scapegoat and condone vilification of a group of people, the more we signal that their lives aren't worth quite as much as our white ones. There are a ton of not-terribly bright people out there – the kind who get drunk at strip clubs and think it's a decent idea to beat someone to death because he or she made you mad – who internalize that message very well. It turns out that if you tell enough half-wits enough times that (insert demographic group) is to blame for the problems in their life resulting from ignorance, laziness, and limited opportunities, some will eventually cross the line from merely being assholes into violence. Every aspect of our society, culture, and justice system that reinforces the message that Their lives are valued at a discount shares responsibility for crimes like this one, not for swinging the bat into the skull but for teaching white people, especially men, that the system will look the other way and accept the right to commit violent acts out of hate as just another thing they are owed.