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Jeremy Lin and the Debate About Race

Jeremy Lin’s short career as a starter in the NBA is already the stuff of legend. In his first four starts for the Knicks, he became the first player in the history of the league to score at least twenty points and dish out at least seven assists. As I write this, the Knicks are on a 7-0 winning streak since Lin came to the forefront. What’s more, Lin seemingly came out of nowhere, having gone undrafted out of college and been cut by multiple teams. In fact, Lin was given playing time in New York primarily because of the absence of players with much more experience and name recognition. In a very short period of time he has become the toast of Manhattan — less than a month after the Giants won the Superbowl. His name and his story are now regular fare for every major media outlet in the U.S. He just made the cover of Sports Illustrated. It’s Linsanity!

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to the arc of this narrative, you know what comes next: controversy. Jeremy Lin, you see, is an Asian-American. Though Lin himself was born in the United States, his parents emigrated from Taiwan. The sudden, intense media attention Lin has garnered has caused some observers to argue that his race is the primary motivator of the hype. The question has prompted numerous media “debates” in the sports world and beyond.

There is a major problem with almost all of these debates, however: they are too narrow. As often happens when we discuss issues of identity – race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on – these debates tend to focus only on one issue. In Lin’s case, the main focus has been on race. Instead of seeing individuals primarily in terms of one demographic characteristic – essentially, as points on a continuum – scholars have increasingly argued that we should see individuals as intersections of multiple categories of identity. It is impossible to understand Jeremy Lin’s story without looking at all the different issues that have worked together to make it happen.

Class

When it comes to individuals, class normally means economics. How much money do you make? In today’s jargon, are you part of the 1% or some other, less fortunate number? Money is not the only thing that determines class, however. In Lin’s case, there are two issues of class at work.

Compared to the average American, almost all NBA players are wealthy. Among teams, however, there are still important differences in status. Although the Knicks haven’t won an NBA championship since 1973 and have struggled to find playoff success in recent years, the fact that they play in New York makes them a natural focus for the national media outlets that call the city home. The Knicks play in one of the most famous venues in sports, and their games are regularly attended by celebrities, politicians, and members of the country’s financial elite. When something happens to the Knicks, it’s news. If Lin played for the Sacramento Kings or the Toronto Raptors, it’s unlikely he would be receiving nearly as much attention.

Another class issue for Lin is that he graduated from Harvard. His alma mater is a school that has produced more U.S. presidents (eight) than NBA players (six). Lin is the first Harvard alum to play in the league since 1954. For most Americans, Harvard is an icon of the educational and financial elite. The fact that Lin graduated from Harvard does not make him wealthy, but it certainly raises his class status in the eyes of those who hear his story. In the NBA, the story the media most often likes to tell is one involving poor kids from America’s inner cities who overcome great financial and personal hardship by playing basketball. Lin’s status as a Harvard graduate gives the media an opportunity to tell a different story, a sort of “man bites dog” version of its own favored narrative. From a class perspective, Lin is portrayed as exotic.

Religion

While much of the staged media debates about Lin have focused on his race, it would be a mistake to overlook the role Lin’s religion has played in his sudden popularity. Media reports certainly haven’t overlooked it. A quick Lexis search of Lin’s name in proximity to key religious terms produces nearly 200 articles in mainstream publications over the last three weeks. Google “Jeremy Lin” and “Christian” and you’ll get over 1.6 million hits.

Like Tim Tebow, Lin is an evangelical Christian who is proud to proclaim his faith in public, especially in post-game interviews. In fact, neither the media nor the public has been slow to draw the comparisons between Lin and Tebow – Googling “Jeremy Lin” and “Tebow” produces almost 6.5 million hits. The comparison is almost certainly misguided from a stylistic or competitive standpoint. Tebow has always struck me more as football’s equivalent of Robert Horry in his later career: not necessarily strong for the first three quarters, but often deadly at the end of games. Lin, as my friend Jon Paul Lupo has pointed out, is more like basketball’s Kurt Warner.

However inaccurate the comparisons between Lin and Tebow are, the fact remains that Tebow set the stage for professional athletes not only to use their profession as a platform for their faith, but also to use their faith to enhance their popularity. Lin’s public humility, his professions of faith, and the comparisons to Tebow are all likely to resonate with Christians, giving Lin a much larger population of potential fans.

Ability

Differences of ability are important sources of both privilege and discrimination in everyday life. In sports, even though everyone has a high level of physical ability, relatively minor differences become magnified. In Jeremy Lin’s case, the debate over his race sometimes obscures the fact that his athletic accomplishments are impressive. Boxer Floyd Mayweather’s infamous tweet only highlighted what some were saying in private: why is Lin getting so much attention when other players who are not Asian-American perform well all the time?

The answer is that other players do not perform like Lin has. Ever. His performance in the first few games of his career as a starter surpassed every other player who has ever started in the league. Magic Johnson didn’t have this kind of beginning. Neither did Michael Jordan. Neither did Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, or any other great player you can think of. Professional sports have a strong tendency to reward excellence with media attention. Because Kevin Durant is excellent, I have seen more televised events that took place in Oklahoma City in the last two years than I saw in the previous forty. If Lin was merely good, he would not be the subject of so much attention.

One of the most valuable skills in professional basketball is the ability to make your teammates better. Point guards like Lin are particularly valued for that skill, since a big part of their job is to distribute the ball to their teammates. Lin has certainly demonstrated his skill as a passer, but there’s more to it in his case. Unlike Tebow, Lin was not one of the most successful college players of his time. He has no history of being celebrated for his skill. Perhaps as a result of that, he is playing with tremendous energy and enthusiasm – and his teammates have clearly been inspired by it. The Knicks’ energy is much higher with Lin in the game than when he is on the bench. In fact, the Knicks seem to be playing harder with Lin than they did with superstars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire on the floor. Fans who are used to watching players seem to go listlessly through the motions of playing during the NBA regular season are eager to watch Lin play and share his joy.

Race

No fair-minded observer can watch the Linsanity phenomenon without concluding that race is playing a role. NBA players of Asian descent are rare, and Asian-American players even less common. There can be no question that part of the media’s fascination with Lin comes from the fact that he looks the way he does and that his parents emigrated from Taiwan.

What’s so odd about the way many have reacted to the obvious influence of race on the coverage of Lin’s career is the almost universal assumption that Lin’s race is benefitting him. Lin is getting all this attention, the argument goes, because he is seen as exotic, and he is seen that way because of his race. In this view, Lin’s race is uniformly advantageous, and is necessarily unfair because other players do not have access to it.

As racism scholars have pointed out, however, being seen as exotic is not consistently beneficial. Particularly for those of Asian descent, in fact, being exotic can be the source of many problems. If you are exotic, after all, you are necessarily “other.” One cannot be simultaneously mysterious and familiar. Furthermore, the “exotic Asian” is seen by many Americans in ways that are neither flattering nor valuable. Asian women are often stereotyped as submissive sexual objects, while Asian men are seen as sexless workaholics.

The media coverage of Jeremy Lin has, unfortunately, been rife with these sorts of negative stereotypes. Fox analyst Jason Whitlock’s shameful comments deriding Lin’s sexual prowess are only the most talked-about of a host of racial stereotypes pervading the coverage of Lin – from faux-Asian lettering on signs in basketball arenas to “tiger mom” references on fan sites. Nor are these sorts of slurs a new phenomenon. Lin has had to deal with overt racism during his whole basketball career.

I have written previously that Tim Tebow participated in his own transformation from a football player to a symbol for several larger ideas that transcend sports. Jeremy Lin, however, is not publicly proclaiming himself as a symbol of Asian men in general or Asian-American men in particular. While Asian-American fans of the game may see Lin as a positive role model, Lin himself must contend with much broader issues. Analysts and league officials are publicly speculating about Lin’s ability to attract fans from China, mostly ignoring that Lin was born in the United States and is not fluent in Mandarin. Lin finds himself being loaded up with the symbolic baggage of an entire country that is not his home – and if you believe that’s a net positive for him, think about China’s place as a prominent threat in American political discourse.

Intersectionality

Class, religion, ability, and race: which of these four things is responsible for the hype about Jeremy Lin? The answer is all of the above. Lin sits at a unique intersection of characteristics and contexts. The truth is that all of us occupy such an intersection. In Lin’s case, the distinctive nature of that intersection is simply easier to see. When we insist that race is the primary driver of the fascination with Lin, when we choose to look at this phenomenon from only one perspective, we willfully blind ourselves to its complex reality.


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