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Vincent Chin's Death 40 Years Later: Advocate Mabel Teng Says Uniting Black and Asian Communities Key for Justice

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People are seated at a small stage in a black and white photo with "Justice for Vincent Chin" on a sign in English and Chinese in the background, a woman and man stand at a podium.
Rev. Jesse Jackson comes to Cameron House, San Francisco, to call for justice after the death of Vincent Chin, flanked by San Francisco activists, including Mabel Teng (right) and the late Ed Lee, a former San Francisco mayor, then-civil rights attorney. At the podium is Lily Chin, mother of Vincent Chin. (Photo Courtesy Mabel Teng)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Detroit man who was killed in an act of hate, but whose killing sparked Asian American communities to rise up for justice.

He was beaten to death by two white men who worked in the auto industry and, according to witnesses, were angry over what they perceived as the loss of American jobs to Japanese imports. He was attacked on June 19, 1982, and died four days later from his injuries.

His killers were fined $3,000 and sentenced to three years of probation. They never served time in prison.

The light sentencing galvanized not only Asian American communities, but solidarity from the Black community as well, particularly from Rev. Jesse Jackson, who came to San Francisco in the 1980s to join hands with coalitions advocating for Chin's family.

Three women, left, and one man, right, walk down a hallway in a black and white photo. A woman third form left is crying in anguish, as the woman amd man to her immediate sides carry her by the arms.
Lily Chin, mother of Vincent chin who was clubbed to death by two white men in a scuffle in June 1982, breaks down as a relative (L), helps her walk while leaving Detroit's City County Building. Mrs. Chin along with the American Citizens for Justice asked Judge Charles Kaufman, who heard the case and passed sentence, to resentence the two involved in the slayings. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Anti-Asian hate rose during the pandemic amid hateful rhetoric, including from former President Donald Trump, who stoked racist coronavirus fears of Asian Americans. At least 10,905 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were recorded from March 19, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2021, according to the coalition Stop AAPI Hate.

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That rising hate has also awakened Asian American voters in San Francisco, who cited increasing violence against their communities in the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin this month.

Mabel Teng has been there through it all — pushing for recognition for Asian American communities in the wake of Chin's death, to the present day, where she recently called for solidarity between the Black and Asian communities in the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily newspaper.

In the 1980s, Teng served as co-chair of the Chinese Progressive Association, one of a bevy of Asian American organizations that rose up in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and played a pivotal advocacy role following Chin's death.

Also in the 80s, Teng joined Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition, which pushed nationally for more rights for ethnic groups who felt they were ignored by the policies of then-President Ronald Reagan.

Teng since had a storied San Francisco career, serving on the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees in 1990, then later becoming the first Asian woman elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1994. Later, as San Francisco assessor-recorder, her office processed the first marriages of same-sex couples in City Hall. She now serves as the interim executive director of the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative.

A woman stands inbetween two men, who are all on the steps of City Hall shouting with smiles.
San Francisco Country Court Recorder Mabel Teng (C) and California Assemblyman Mark Leno (R) attend a rally August 12, 2004 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

In this wide-ranging interview with KQED's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, Teng describes her own social justice awakening, lessons learned from the coalitions built in the wake of Chin's death, and how those lessons could heal divisions between the Asian American and Black communities today.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Where were you in your perception of activism and social justice before the Rainbow Coalition?

Mabel Teng: I think where I was in the 1980s, I was becoming an activist. My eyes were opened. I saw injustice. I saw discrimination. I came from it. Since my family immigrated to America. It's been a journey of discrimination and exploitation and being treated as a second-class citizen. So the 80s was my kind of awakening that maybe I can be part of changing that reality.

Tell me your earliest memory of discrimination.

So I came from Hong Kong in 1970, or ‘71. I came with my mom and my sister, the three of us. We immigrated here and I went to live with my older sister in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My high school in my memory was mostly white, even though it was it wasn't all white.

But I was made to feel like an alien because I looked like an immigrant and I couldn't speak English. And I remember the first day in school, I was so prepared to make friends. So I learned, ‘How are you?’ and ‘My name is Mabel.’ I was greeted with ‘Ching chong Chinaman, never eat your vitamin.’ I didn't know what it meant. So I said ‘Thank you.’ That live[S?] in my memory vividly. And I remember going to high school, I had to take all these classes in English. And my teacher knew I couldn’t speak English. And she would pick on me and have me stand up in class and answer questions that I couldn't answer. And I felt very humiliated. People laughed.

What was the perception of yourself when you were young and what was the perception others gave you and how did those eventually reconcile?

Such a tough question. Before I came to America, I always have this kind of like magazine picture that America is sunshine, flowers, everybody has a dog and you have a house and everybody is happy. But when I came, it wasn't the same, right? It looks like everybody else had a dog. Everybody else had sunshine. They're happy. But for immigrants, we don't have a dog. We don't have a house. And life is not so happy. So my perception is, clearly, there are two Americas. One America for the white people and one America for the rest of us who are not white. That was very, very clear in my mind.


Take us to the 1970s, to give us an idea of the activism in the Asian American community before Chin's death. Would you say that some of the early efforts to organize in Asian American communities you were involved in, were any of them inspired by the social justice movements that were happening in the previous decade?

Oh, definitely. So people who introduced me to Chinatown, they were older, part of the social justice movement. They were part of the war against poverty. Back then, but I was kind of like the young ones being mentored and being taught by these older activists. So some of them already kind of have a consciousness of working with African Americans and the Black Power movement at that time. But I was just cutting my teeth.

Two men hold signs at a rally in a black and white photo.
Alex Hing and Rocky Chin hold signs supporting Jesse Jackson for president in New York City in 1988. They came to support him after the Rainbow Coalition showed up to support the Chin family and Asian American communities. (Courtesy Mabel Teng)

Do you remember where you were when you heard Vincent Chin was killed?

It was in a newspaper, and I was in San Francisco by then. I was the co-chair of the Chinese Progressive Association here and what I was working on the immigrant rights movement. President Ronald Reagan came into office, and working with him was so clearly in my mind, Congressman (Romano) Mazzoli and Senator (Alan) Simpson, they proposed to eliminate family immigration by cutting off brothers and sisters. They said brothers and sisters are not a core part of the American family. And then if you look at the stats, it's the Asians, the Chinese, the Filipinos, we're using most “fifth preference” (nominating brothers or sisters) to bring their family over. So I became a champion to oppose the bill and I was in coalition with a whole bunch of people.

So when word came that Vincent Chin was killed, I think we were devastated. But a lot of Asians were going through this, like we want to live the “American dream,” right? So a lot of the parents were encouraging the kids to be professional, to be doctors, into accounting. 'Don't cause trouble, and don't bring grief to the family and be like a model for the family.' So a lot of Asians did not share our activism.

A portrait of a man with long hair, wearing a tie. The photo is in black and white. He is smiling.
Vincent Chin. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

So the immigration write-in campaign did not spread like wildfire even though it was in the self-interest of Asians to fight. But then when the Vincent Chen killing came, it really changed it.

Tell me more about the emotional and political fallout at the time.

When we heard the news that Vincent Chin was killed, a professional person, American born, I remember I was just lost. It wasn't like he was a working-class, like immigrant who spoke with an accent, but he was accomplished. He was a well-liked Asian guy. And how could he be killed? I mean, if he could be killed, we could all be killed, right? So that was the first shell shock. I think the other shell shock was when we heard the killers went through a trial, a so-called speedy trial, and the judge gave a sentence of $3,000 fine and three years of probation to the two killers in the brutal killing. So I think that gross miscarriage of justice was what whipped the entire Asian-American community into action.

Why was it so important and how helpful was it to have the Rainbow Coalition come together to have different ethnic groups come and join with each other to push back against that injustice?

I think the Rainbow Coalition experience to me is a whole different realm. It's like me getting a first-hand education from African American leaders, Civil Rights leaders and just people like me. If we turn off the light, we all look alike. We all feel alike. So Jesse Jackson took me to his hometown, took me to his church. It was a whole different experience. I already could feel his commitment to Vincent Chin and Mrs. Chin. For nine years of our struggle, he stayed with us. He worked with us. So when he took me and other Asians in the Rainbow, we learned so much from African-Americans, right? I mean, I would never have known the story about Emmett Till. Never. I think we actually influenced Jesse Jackson as much as he influenced us. And he always talked about it.

Taking it back to San Francisco, how do you think it shaped activism in San Francisco that moment, Vincent Chin and the coalitions that formed then?

I think it transformed San Francisco. It raised the bar of organizing to a whole new level in San Francisco. I remember after Reverend Jackson came to San Francisco to meet with us at Cameron House, organizations started to work together. We are not well known for working together for many years. At that time, you have the Chinese Progressive Association, the Asian Law Caucus, Cameron House and American Citizens for Justice. These organizations started working together.

Can you speak to how useful it has been to have those connections formed and to have them persist throughout San Francisco's history?

People in Chinatown working with each other empowered the entire community. But when Chinatown worked in unison with other races and other ethnicities and other groups, it's empowering for everyone. So I think our charge moving forward is to come out of our own silos.

A group of dozens of youth pose for a photo with Jesse Jackson inside a room.
Jesse Jackson in conversation with youth, sponsored by Rainbow Coalition. Event was held at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. (Courtesy Mabel Teng)

I think in the last few years with that white supremacist in the White House, people were looking for ways to survive, looking for new ways to organize. But I think some of us realize we already got the way, it's to work together and not in silos. But not everybody realized it yet because it's just so hard.

We have these two social justice movies happening in silos. We have the Black Lives Matter protests, the protests that came out of George Floyd's death, the call for less policing, the call for more reform in policing. But then we also have this movement against rising anti-Asian hate. And some of that comes up with a call from certain folks who wish for more policing in recognition of the need for more safety. Sometimes it can feel like those two ideas are in contest with each other. What do you think is the way forward for that common ground?

All the communities need to look at the costs of public safety, because public safety is not as simple as having more police. I mean, look at all the African Americans that were killed by the police. So every community and ethnicity has a different relationship with the police. I think the solution is for a different community, which may not look the same in terms of the color of our skins, but these communities to come together and to understand better each other's aspiration. What are the solution to safety? You know, African American families aspire for safety. The Asian community also feels unsafe. So we face a common oppression, right? We face a common situation. What are the root cause? Let's work together on those root cause. Because I don't think more policing is the simple solution to public safety. I think that in fact is an oversimplification of the issue.

A black and white photo of people seated on a stage with a protest banner hanging behind them.
Jesse Jackson speaks with Lily Chin, at a gathering for justice for Vincent Chin at Cameron House, SF, May 1983. (Courtesy Mabel Teng)

You cannot deal with safety without dealing with the social issue. It’s poverty that we need to deal with in San Francisco. The income gap. It's widening. Are we really happy that San Francisco is so divided and so polarized? So what is our common aspiration solution? Because I think for a lot of the African American families, Asian families, we are in the "have nots," right?

The lesson of the Rainbow Coalition, I think are many and they are meaningful. I think one is people coming together, working together and out of their own silos are powerful. We have seen it in the eighties. We have seen it in the nineties. We need to see it today. I think the second lesson is when people come together, we need to be patient and respectful of each other because our culture, our heritage may be different. We need to listen to each other without the lights on so that the color of our skin is not an issue, but how we feel. The common oppression is what drives us. I think the third lesson is we need to be open to each other's heritage and culture. Learn them and make it part of yourself so that we have adopted from each other the best of our culture.

Coalition building takes time. I mean, it's not like a one-month thing or a one-year thing. I think coalition building is measured maybe in ten years. It's a decades thing. It's really a commitment. So I think we have to be patient and give it time.

NPR's Wynne Davis contributed to this report. Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Teng as executive director of the Chinese Culture Center. She has since moved on to a new position at another organization. 


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