Jeremy Lin: The Backlash

Linsanity may now be considered a bona fide cultural moment, if for no other reason than the response it has provoked: It has generated its very own backlash.

The boxer Floyd Mayweather caused a stir on Twitter on Monday when he dismissed Jeremy Lin, the sensational Knicks point guard and the first Asian-American to play in the National Basketball Association, as the product of racial favoritism.

"Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian," declared Mayweather, who is African-American. "Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise."

Put aside for a moment that this statement is demonstrably ridiculous. Very few players in the history of the game have done what Lin has been doing since he took over starting point guard duties for the New York Knicks earlier this month. The last newcomer to post numbers comparable to Lin's was a guy named LeBron James. I'm guessing you have heard of him. He is African-American, and he does not suffer from a lack of hype. Before that was Isiah Thomas, also black and no stranger to the spotlight.

Mayweather's putdown could have applied to Jackie Robinson when he broke baseball's color barrier. We know his story as deeply as we do because he was the first African-American to crack the major leagues, transcending a legacy of systematic racial discrimination. Yet his statistics speak for themselves: He was a wonderful player who earned his due.

Silliness aside, Mayweather's words amount to a teachable moment for a nation in which race is an omnipresent part of almost any conversation and too often employed as a means of undermining individual accomplishments. Successful people of color are frequently stripped of their achievements and stuck with an asterisk, as if their status were achieved by anything less than the merit that supposedly governs everything for white people. Even in moments of triumph, painful stereotypes are reinforced, with the settled-upon popular narrative yielding to shared (and typically simplistic) assumptions about characteristics supposedly tethered to racial identity.

In this case, Mayweather and others inclined to pooh-pooh Lin's success have the story backward. He is a phenomenon who has captured public adulation not because he is Asian but in spite of that fact. A black or white player who posted the numbers he put up at Palo Alto High School would have been recruited by a major college basketball program, as his coach suggested recently. That would have raised his profile long ago.

Had he come out of a basketball powerhouse such as the University of North Carolina or Georgia Tech as opposed to the academic powerhouse that is Harvard, his prowess on the court would have prompted some NBA team to draft him. Given how swiftly he has mastered the pro game, that much seems clear. Yet he got his chance only on an underperforming Knicks squad because of a painful void at his position. The other players were too old, too injured or too lousy to play, so the Asian guy got a shot, and suddenly the Knicks are indomitable.

Lin remained hidden, we can assume, at least in part because those running the game were unaccustomed to seeing Asian Americans (and Harvard graduates) succeed as professional athletes. Yes, Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and a few other seven footers from China have made it across the Pacific, but no Chinese-Americans. His fleet, nimble game goes against the grain of deep societal stereotypes -- positive stereotypes, though, some may be: Asians can be investment bankers, lawyers, researchers, McKinsey consultants, but basketball players?

In an insightful essay in Capital New York, Edmund Lee recalls first hearing about Lin two years ago, when he quickly assumed he would not amount to anything:

I shook my head and smiled, not just because of the low likelihood of any able-bodied talent at being drafted into a professional sports league, but because this kid, this tyro talent, felt too much like one of us. Too much, in particular, like my wife's friend, who happened to be an Asian-American Ivy League graduate with spiky hair, an unassuming visage, and a towering devotion to both the court and the church.
"Is he good?" I remember asking.
"He's one of the top-ranked players at his college," he said.
When I found out which college, I snickered. We ended the conversation shortly after.

Profiling is how the human mind works, fair or otherwise. We assume attributes, strengths and weaknesses, experiences and inclinations based on how people look and sound. They are based on the patterns that we have seen and heard before -- the people we know at school and work, the characters we encounter on television, the things our parents say about others as we are growing up. Jeremy Lin is clearly a hell of a basketball player. Yet he had to persevere in the face of judgments that people who look like him are not the kinds of people we expect to see when we flip on the television and tune in an NBA game.

And now that he has not only persevered but excelled, some want to turn his story into an example of supposed racial preference: He hasn't earn the hype through skill, effort and victories. The media gave it to him because of his race.

In other contexts, African-American and Latino professionals suffer these sorts of slights every day. More times than I can count, I have been told by a fellow white journalist that one or another African American colleague got a job only because he is black, this sentiment accepted as self-evident among many highly educated people reared in a time of affirmative action.

I have never heard anyone express the natural complement to this sort of characterization -- that a not very talented, low-achieving white colleague effectively owes her position to her whiteness, or the social status of which whiteness in America is inextricably linked. People know one another socially, on the tennis court, from the dormitory at their Ivy League university, and they draw on those social networks when it comes time to find a job, get a kid into a resume-building internship, find a good deal on a mortgage. Plenty of mediocre white people now sit in offices drawing paychecks, because they fit the physical description of the boss' model of success, or because they met the boss at a dinner party or at the Hamptons. Privilege confers privilege. In the corporate setting, being white tends to make a person look more like the kind of person who will fit in. On the basketball court, being black has the same effect.

We tend to believe in the logic of that to which we are accustomed, which makes it hard for people who do not fit the mold -- even people of great drive and ability -- to break into the traditional ranks. That's what Lin just did, and the inevitable backlash is merely the latest example of how bogus charges of affirmative action continue to bedevil American society, a dynamic that denies people dignity.

Even Lin, now celebrated as an affirming story of dogged pursuit and unlikely success, is suffering the framing of his achievement in terms that speak to persistent racial stereotypes. More than one announcer has noted that he is "stronger than he looks," though he is 6 foot 3 and some 200 pounds. Anyone looking at that body and seeing anything less than strength is not getting past skin color, while buying into the notion that Asian men are less than fully such.

More than one commentator has described Lin's success as a product of his being smart, which both diminishes his obvious athleticism (it's all about Harvard!) while implicitly reinforcing a deep-seated and unfair stereotype used to diminish the achievements of black athletes: They are raw, innate talents, whereas everyone else has to work hard to compensate.

Linsanity is a fantastic event on multiple fronts -- a racial milestone reached, a sports story involving a woeful franchise perhaps rescued by an unlikely hero, and the compelling tale of a guy no one counted on, who comes through huge. But in the end, it is a simpler story than the one that broad racial assumptions are inclined to spin out: Lin is a very good basketball player, no more, no less.