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.”
As Gym describes, this tidal wave of celebration as well as anti-racist vigilance reflects something that has been simmering for years, which has found expression on the local level but until now not in the national consciousness. “Jeremy Lin has galvanized a vocal and sharply politicized Asian America which is going directly to bat on anti-Asian slurs, stereotyping and racist frameworks that have marginalized our community. The fact that Lin doesn’t shy away from talking about anti-Asian stereotypes that have impacted his career has driven home the impact of such stereotypes in a deeply personal way. As much as I’m in awe of Jeremy Lin in both his on- and off-court actions, I am just as proud of a new generation of Asian-Americans that has not only rallied around Lin but is articulating a distinct Asian-American experience and identity and shifting the discussion toward a more multiracial understanding of this country. And although there have been shocking instances of racial prejudice and ignorance, I’ve been far more encouraged about a multiracial outpouring of support and consciousness-building that is just inspiring.”
This support was seen, of all places, on Saturday Night Live, where a sketch brilliantly pointed out the double standard of a sports world allowing a set of racist imagery about Lin that would be forbidden for other players. Chang, who was able to speak with SNL’s chief writer, Seth Meyers, told me, “I am not sure I was able to convey to him what the opening sketch meant to me and many of us. But what he told me was profoundly moving. He admitted how difficult the sketch was to write; honestly, folks had never been asked to do something like this before…. In the end, he said, it all came down to this: ‘We wanted to do something that Jeremy Lin would laugh at when he watched it.’ After centuries of bullshit, I thought that was really fucking deep.”
Lin has provided space for discussions not only about contemporary racism but about Asian-American history as well, from forgotten pro basketball trailblazers like Wat Misaka to the critical role people of Asian descent have played in building the US left, a role often excised from the history books. They were some of the original members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and they were founding members of the United Farm Workers as well as the Black Panther Party. Lin’s ascendance, even if there is no evidence that he is politically active, has allowed these discussions to come to light.
Even Lin’s style of play has provoked discussion and hope. He moves on the court with a confidence and cool more in common with the African-American basketball aesthetic, an example of the kind of cross-cultural hybrids that are common in the United States but so often unacknowledged. William Wong said this alone holds remarkable potential. “He has a chance to be a model for positive social relationships between blacks and Asians. These relationships range from loving, copacetic, friendly and respectful to alienated, hostile, suspicious and hateful. Now that Lin is playing smoothly with a lot of black ballers and doing it in a way that is inclusive and collaborative—and winning the respect of many black players—he could be a prime symbol of racial reconciliation for the young generation, and offer a lesson for elders of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.”
By driving the lane, by enduring racist taunts and by doing it all with a wink and a smile, Lin has done more than bring hope to aspiring athletes of Asian descent. He holds the promise of ending invisibility for masses of people deemed irrelevant by attitudes marinated in decades of racism. This might sound overly hopeful, but at a time when hope is in short supply, Lin speaks to the best angels of our nature, and in so doing he inspires progress and change. As Chang says, “Part of me is over all the chatter about what Jeremy means, but the other part of me realizes that we’ve just turned a page in the way Asian-Americans are represented in the United States.”