The Alarming Rise of Jeremy Lin's Black Antagonists
Floyd Mayweather, one of Jeremy Lin's many black critics
Even non-sports fans had to enjoy watching Jeremy Lin almost single-handedly win six games in a row for the New York Knicks after sitting on the bench for most of his NBA career. Overnight, Lin went from a nobody development league player to the toast of New York City, and all via a glorious burst of athleticism that rivaled the greats of old. The world loves a Cinderella story, especially when the little guy is like Lin, a kindhearted, good-looking underdog with a Harvard degree and a deep faith in God. Everything was beautiful. But then came the bowing.
After a particularly electrifying point in the Knicks game against the Nets, when Lin had gotten nearly all of Madison Square Garden to its feet and cheering, Lin's teammate Carmelo Anthony, approached the point guard, locked eyes with him, and bowed. It might have been a less inappropriate gesture if Lin were from Japan, where bowing is customary, but Lin is Taiwanese-American, and people don't bow in Taiwan. In other words, Anthony was bowing to Lin simply because he's Asian. Lin, who has spoken openly about the slurs he's encountered throughout his life, was a good sport about it, bowing back immediately—and in the grand scheme of racist gestures, Anthony's falls low on the totem pole. But that doesn't make it any less stupid or offensive. And, unfortunately, it doesn't end there.
Of all the ups and downs of Lin's brief but exciting tenure atop America's cultural heap—a historic first start, manipulating the stock market, outmatching the older and far more experienced Kobe Bryant—the ugliest part has been the racism to which he's been exposed. Worse still, a lot of this bigotry is coming at the hands of black people, who, one would think, should know better.
Eddie Murphy once joked—rather offensively—that Asian people suffer relentless mockery from the black community. Murphy was kidding, of course, but, as with many jokes, there was a kernel of truth there, which has been confirmed in the wake of Lin's ascent. One might be able to brush away Anthony's bowing as mostly benign, the innocent mistake of someone ignorant to a cultural detail. But then came this series of tweets from filmmaker and devoted Knicks fan Spike Lee, considered by many to be a black thought leader:
When some of Lee's Twitter followers admonished him for resorting to kung fu flicks to find Lin a nickname, Lee blasted back, saying that stereotyping is "not the spirit in which [he] works."
Six days after Lee's Twitter barrage, in the hours after yet another great performance from Lin, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock took to his own Twitter account to congratulate Lin. "Jeremy Lin is legit!" he tweeted. But then this came out:
Get it? "Asian men have small penises" is the joke, apparently. Whitlock apologized for his tweet after a day or so of haranguing, but one wonders how a well-respected—or at least very public—media professional could ever think that mocking Asian men's penises in front of millions of people was the right thing to do. Sadder still is that Whitlock, like Lee, claims to be a big fan of Lin's. If this is what fans are doing, imagine what Lin's detractors think of him.
One of those detractors is the boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who on Monday tweeted, "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." Keep in mind that Lin, once a bench-warmer, has now led his team to six straight victories. Keep in mind that he's now helped dismantle the perennial powerhouse that is the L.A. Lakers. Keep in mind that the Laker defeat involved Lin putting up 38 points. The fact is that a black player in that exact same situation would indeed be getting the same kind of hype as Lin—not because of his race, but because people love Cinderella stories. Does Lin's ethnicity add a fascinating layer to that story? Absolutely. But saying that the only reason for the "Linsanity" is because Lin looks different from other players is downright inaccurate.
Flash back to 2003, and you might remember Rush Limbaugh talking during an ESPN Sunday pregame show about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. In essence, he was complaining about an NFL version of affirmative action: "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well," Limbaugh said. "They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well ... McNabb got a lot of the credit for the performance of the team that he really didn't deserve." People were outraged, obviously, and Limbaugh summarily lost his commentating gig. But looking back today, it's difficult to see much difference between Limbaugh's and Mayweather's words. The difference is that Mayweather, a black athlete himself, might not be so willing to agree that black athletes in traditionally white pockets of sports get too much of a pass from the liberal white media.
It generally feels pretty gimmicky to say, "What if so and so said this?" in discussions of race, because the context gets warped. In this case, though, because we're talking about an Asian man who has time and again encountered racism in his career (Lin used to be called a "chink" when he played college ball), it seems more apt than usual. What if an Asian sportscaster heralded the arrival of a new black basketball star by writing about how all the women were going to love his big penis? What if an Asian director introduced Spike Lee at the Golden Globes as "Spike 'Superfly' Lee"? What if an Asian anchor, famous for his antagonistic racism, went on ESPN to say that the only reason Tiger Woods is popular is because he's black? We already know what would happen with that last one: The anchor would be fired and written off as a bigot—Limbaugh was. I'll be shocked if Mayweather faces any similar repercussions.
As a champion of the underdog, I've found watching Lin's rise to fame fun and, at times, thrilling—and this is from someone who doesn't even like sports. But as a person of color, watching Lin become famous has also been a sad reminder of the intolerance found within the black community, and how often that intolerance goes unchecked because of society's racial conventions. I'm not asking anyone to look at Jeremy Lin and see Jackie Robinson, who famously broke professional baseball's color barrier. But I'd estimate that Lin is a lot closer to Jackie Robinson than Floyd Mayweather, Jr., will ever be.