Where innuendo is always welcome
During his 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in an effort to allay any controversy about his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In doing so, he opened up a national dialogue on the nature of race in America, urging us as citizens to continue the formation of a more perfect union through open discussion and a rejection of conventional racial bias. Quoting the great William Faulkner, he said, “the past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” Since giving that speech it doesn’t look as if we as a people have kept this dialogue going, except in moments of misfortune during which men and women accidentally let their prejudice show to the wrong person at the wrong time. But, who do we think of when we think of race relations? If Jeremy Lin is any indication, we certainly don’t think about Asian-Americans.
By now, anybody pays attention to sports (and many that don’t) know the story: Young Asian-American Harvard grad Jeremy Lin makes good on his one shining moment in the NBA and goes on to lead the previously pathetic New York Knickerbockers out of the league basement and into the playoff hunt within a week of getting the starting point guard job. With a number of sizable exceptions1, Lin-sanity has picked up exactly where Tebow Time left off as the feel-good, Rudy/Hoosiers-eqsue story of the year. That is, if you ignore the barrage of racially insensitive and bigoted remarks made by the press and other athletes since Lin’s rise to prominence. And it wasn’t as we shouldn’t have seen this coming. If you look at the general response to Asian and Asian-American athletes in other sports, there seems to be a concerted effort to minimize their contributions. Whenever a Japanese baseball star comes to the US, one of two things normally happens. For those who come over and struggle in the majors, they’re labeled as baseball fools gold, that category reserved for those who were a mirage of padded stats in the less-talented Japanese leagues. The Japanese imports who are successful in the MLB invariable have their performance denigrated and rationalized to prove how they are a sort of “gimmick star.” For instance, regardless of Ichiro’s 10 consecutive Gold Gloves and his seven seasons leading the league in hits, he is often portrayed as an overrated player whose numbers are deceiving. Instead of being mentioned in the same breath as hitting greats like Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Tony Gwynn, you often hear him described as a player who does nothing but his meaningless slap singles2and infield hits.
With that being said, the racism involved with Japanese players in baseball was at least covert. The attacks on Lin have been as obvious as Rick Santorum’s homophobia. It all started with Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock letting this tweet go in the middle of the Knicks-Lakers game this past Friday: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” Hooray! A stereotypical Asian dick joke! And how is this fuckstack still employed? All he had to do was write a tepid apology. I’m pretty sure Don Imus got fired after he called the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, “a bunch of nappy-headed hos.” Of course Sir Shock-Jock got hired by somebody else soon after, but where was the indignation after Whitlock’s tweet or after MSG posted a graphic with a sign of a fortune cookie with Lin’s head above it, reading “The Knicks’ Good Fortune”? And, as the the coup-de-grace, for now, we have the worldwide leader in sports posting an image of Lin on its mobile website last night with accompanying header that said, “Chink in the armor.”
I want you to read that ESPN header again. A chink…in….the armor. When was the last time you can remember a major news network using a racial slur like that? Can you imagine anyone doing that for any other ethnic group? The slur “chink” is on a par with the words nigger3 or kike in the American lexicon. Do you realize the colossal shitstorm that would be ensue if ESPN had used either of those word in reference to an black or Jewish athlete? The only ethnicities I can think of that would have gotten a more lukewarm public reception to this type of media abuse are Arab-Americans and Indian-Americans4. It may feel uncomfortable to read it and I can tell you it isn’t pleasant to write it, but there is a definite hierarchy when it comes to race in this country that goes way beyond “white vs. non-white.”
One of the most important things that Lin-sanity has brought to the fore of national attention is that verbal abuse of Asian-Americans in the United States is neither prohibited nor allowed. It hasn’t yet reached the taboo status that other race-based relationships have achieved. All through his time at Harvard, Jeremy Lin had to endure racial taunting from opposing crowds and now he’s been introduced to it on the professional level. In a weird way, Jeremy Lin is being forced emulate pioneers like Earl Lloyd and fellow Knick, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton as the de facto ambassador of his race to the NBA and its fans. Sure we’ve had stars like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian come over from China, but that was the thing: they came here. As foreigners, NBA fans could still classify him as the “other.” You can’t do that with Lin. He was born in L.A. And grew up in Palo Alto. The kid’s as American as apple pie covered in american cheese. Thankfully, given the poise with which he has conducted himself thus far as he’s been thrust into the national spotlight, it looks like Lin is as good of an ambassador and leader as you’re likely to find, on or off the court. Now, it’d be nice if his detractors would switch of the racial tip and start attacking having worse ball security than a hot tub at the Palm Springs Retirement Community pool. Don’t judge based on the color of his skin, but the content of his crossover.
1Key differences between Jeremy and Timmy: a) Tim Tebow won a national championship and a Heisman Trophy while in college. Jeremy Lin was a walk-on who played Dartmouth twice a year and probably wasn’t the most famous person in his advanced macroeconomics class. b) Tebow is a fullback in quarterback’s clothing who has a throwing motion as ugly as sin and almost gave John Elway an aneurysm trying to understand how a quarterback is able to win games going 4 for 10 in the air. Lin has a remarkably complete game for a second-year player (his only real flaws so-far have been unable to drive left, turning the ball over more than Justin Bieber in a celebrity all-star game and being a push-over on defense) and looks like he can follow easily in the footsteps of past hard-driving, energetic Knick point guards of the past like John Starks.
2For the record, “The Hit King” was also the king of slap hitters. Charlie Hustle not only leads the league in career hits, but has the top mark with 3215 singles as well. Chicks may dig the long ball, but you don’t league the lead in hits by trying to go yard every at-bat.
3I am sorry if the use of the ethnic slurs offend anyone reading this. However, I personally see no issue in using these words in commentary and analysis of racial discrimination, especially since they are directed at no individual or group as they are used here. Plus, I cannot stand using “the N-word.” What good is that? Whenever anyone says “the N-word” the person listening automatically thinks, “nigger.” It’s like using the work “Frick” instead of “Fuck.” In the words of Lauren Bacall in My Fellow Americans, “Don’t say friggin’. If you have to use the F word, go for the gold.”
4If you think I’m full of it with regards to Indian-American racism in the states, please, do me a favor and watch some reruns of the blessedly canceled NBC sitcom “Outsourced.” However, I do warn you, I may have mistaken racist sentiment for the development of comically one-sided characters. Based on that rationale, the Italian American League should have boycotted “Joey.”