March 2012, Week 1


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Fri, 2 Mar 2012 23:24:54 -0500
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Jeremy Lin Inspires a Nation

Dave Zirin 
March 19, 2012 edition of The Nation
February 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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


Named one of UTNE Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are
Changing Our World," Dave Zirin is the sports editor for
The Nation magazine. Zirin is a frequent guest on MSNBC,
ESPN and Democracy Now! He also hosts his own weekly
Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio. His books include
What's My Name Fool? (Haymarket Books), A People's
History of Sports in the United States (the New Press),
Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love
(Scribner) and co-author of the forthcoming The John
Carlos Story. You can find all his work at


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