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Hate and hope in America's heartland

After past tragedy, the Rust Belt is to learning to embrace Asian immigrants

A plaque honoring Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death by two white unemployed autoworkers in 1982 (Photo by Hiroyuki Nishimura)

During his presidential campaign, the Midwestern Rust Belt provided Donald Trump with some of his most die-hard supporters. For Asian-Americans living in the onetime manufacturing heartland, however, his promises of taking back "stolen" jobs and "making America great again" brought an unpleasant sense of deja vu.

Just north of Detroit on Woodland Avenue stands a plaque in memory of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American resident killed in 1982. Chin, 27, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white unemployed autoworkers.

At that time, U.S. automakers were struggling against a surge in imports from Japanese rivals. One of Chin's killers was heard using racial slurs and blaming the Japanese for his loss of work, but neither of the two men served any time in prison. This ignited protests among Asian-Americans and led to a federal civil rights case against the men.

The incident shows not only how easily economic nationalism can lead to violence and brutality, but how hostility toward one group can spill over -- intentionally or not -- to another. This seems particularly so in the case of people of Asian descent. Recently there have been multiple reports of Indians living in the U.S. being attacked because perpetrators thought they were Middle Eastern or Muslim, similar to how Chin's killers assumed he was Japanese.

Detroit and the surrounding metropolitan area have become much more cosmopolitan in the years since Chin's murder. Faced with a rapid decline in population, many residents have come to embrace, or at least acknowledge the benefit of, immigrants.

One example is Banglatown, located near the Michigan city of Hamtramck. Signs in Bengali hang from curry restaurants, grocery stores, garment shops, used-car lots and even driving schools. Banglatown is one of the region's largest ethnic neighborhoods, and its growing number of residents is helping to offset the population decline.

The community provides not only short-term benefits to the local economy by spurring consumption and creating jobs, it also plants and nourishes the seeds for future prosperity.

Sheik Younus is a waiter at one of Banglatown's numerous curry restaurants, but he has much bigger plans. As a student at Macomb Community College, he studies nursing and physics. Why the combination? "Because I think there can be more innovation in the field of prosthetics," he said. "Tension, friction and material science are all very important."

Younus nowadays spends much of his time outside of work and the classroom at his garage. "I'm also into making my own 3-D printers," he said. "It's actually not as difficult as people might think."

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