At some point, Jeremy Lin ceased being a basketball player and morphed into something closer to a national phenomenon. He’s Linsanity. He’s “a classic underdog story.” He’s the savior of the New York Knicks, if not the National Basketball Association. But he’s also something far more meaningful and potentially historic. The undrafted Harvard grad has become the dream-carrier for masses of Asian-Americans. Not dreams of basketball greatness but dreams of being acknowledged as a living, breathing part of this country. Lin’s electric skills on the court—and the bigoted reactions his presence has provoked—have sparked a national discussion about media depictions of Asian-Americans, the daily racism they face and their history.
Not everyone is convinced this story means so much. Gene Lyons, writing for Salon, said, “Look, Jeremy Lin is a fellow fortunate enough to make a handsome living putting an inflated rubber ball through an iron hoop, as millions of his clumsier brethren dreamed of doing in our youth…. It has no transcendental meaning. It’s a ballgame.”
Lin’s having “no transcendental meaning” would be news to the people I spoke with for this article, including Jeff Chang, author of the award-winning Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the forthcoming Who We Be: The Colorization of America; Helen Gym, a board member at Asian Americans United in Philadelphia; and William Wong, a longtime journalist from Oakland.
Wong made it plain. “There’s never been a Jeremy Lin in our collective community history. After the California Gold Rush, a century’s worth of legal discrimination and racist violence, we finally have our first sports superstar.”
Lin’s emergence has started the national dialogue that people of Asian descent have been trying to initiate for some time. As Chang said, “It hasn’t just been a big couple of weeks for Jeremy; it has been for all of us who have been talking about how Asian-Americans are racialized. In two weeks, the discourse on Asian-Americans in general and Asian-American men in particular has moved up from the college campus level to the highest levels of the media. Issues that we’ve been talking about for years are now on the minds of the entire world. That has blown me away.”
After Lin’s thirty-eight-point outburst in a victory against the Lakers, Fox Sports commentator Jason Whitlock tweeted a racist joke, which generated a storm of condemnation (Whitlock has since apologized). More outrage erupted days later when ESPN’s mobile website posted a headline about the NBA’s first American player of Chinese origin that read, Chink in the Armor. An ESPN anchor had previously used the phrase, and it had also been uttered on ESPN Radio. Eventually the headline writer was fired and the anchor suspended for thirty days.
Maybe sportswriters can finally stop saying they don’t think race has anything to do with Lin’s emergent celebrity. Of course it does. That’s why the hate is so ugly and supporters are so fiercely protective of his seat at the NBA table. The kind of casual bigotry Lin has faced—the Twitter jokes, the Yellow Mamba signs, the mock Chinese talk, the catcalls from people attending the games—is something Asian-Americans have experienced across the country.
Helen Gym told me about the moment when she felt the discussion became bigger than basketball. “When the Knicks defeated the Lakers and Jason Whitlock put up his racist tweet, there was such an outpouring of support and such an overwhelming rejection of a long-held racial stereotype. I couldn’t keep up with my Twitter feed anymore, and I couldn’t put it down. I think I fell asleep with my phone in my hand, and as soon as I woke up I was checking in and talking with everyone I knew.”