ON June 23, 1982, in Detroit, a young man named Vincent Chin died. Four nights earlier, he had been enjoying his bachelor party with friends at a local bar when they were accosted by two white men, who blamed them for the success of Japan’s auto industry. “It’s because of you we’re out of work,” they were said to have shouted, adding a word that can’t be printed here. The men bludgeoned Mr. Chin, 27, with a baseball bat until his head cracked open.
For all that Asians had been through — racial exclusion, starting with a ban on Chinese migrant labor in 1882; the unconstitutional detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II; the legacy of America’s wars in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam — no single episode involving an individual Asian-American had ever had such an effect before. And none has since.
Thirty years after Mr. Chin’s death, hate crimes seem to be a remote threat for Asian-Americans. But it is premature, if tempting, to celebrate progress.
On Tuesday, a Pew Research Center study, “The Rise of Asian-Americans,” reported that Asians overtook Hispanics in 2009 as the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group and now represent 5.8 percent of the population. It reported that Asian-Americans, on the whole, have higher incomes and better educations than whites, blacks or Latinos.
When it comes to race, nuance matters. The Pew findings encourage us to consider how positive attitudes may contribute to socioeconomic success. But history also teaches us that before Asian-Americans were seen as model minorities, we were also perpetual foreigners. Taken together, these perceptions can lead to resentment. And resentment can lead to hate.
Asian-Americans who have achieved success owe a debt to the agitators who followed the Chin case, often defying their own cultural backgrounds as well as the stereotype of passivity and quiescence. Everyone who cares about the promise of our increasingly diverse nation ought to see in this case the possibility of social change arising from tragic violence.