Jeremy Lin and the Perils of Racial Progress

Who would’ve imagined that a Harvard-educated, Asian American Christian could become the break-out star of this compressed NBA season? It’s a fantastic story, but for many of us J-Lin’s success is a bit unsettling.

HEAD CASES: Linsanity reigns as fans hold up faces of the New York Knicks's sudden sensation Jeremy Lin during a Feb. 15 game at Madison Square Garden. (Photo: John Angelillo/Newscom)

After a Friday-night defeat, the frenzy surrounding the New York Knicks’ sudden superstar Jeremy Lin threatened to settle down just a little after Lin’s nine turnovers helped end his team’s seven-game win streak. But then Lin went out on Sunday afternoon and tallied 28 points and a career-high 14 assists to help take down the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks and we were right back to fever-pitched “Linsanity.”

Suddenly, Jeremy Lin has become that kind of sports phenomenon that broadcasters adore — the exciting, charismatic athlete that even casual sports fans must tune in to watch. Indeed, the causal fans are confirming what hardcore NBA junkies have known for a while now — this Jeremy Lin is something else.

Lin, for those comfortably ensconced beneath a rock, is not only the first Asian American bona fide star in the NBA, but the hottest name in sports right now.

AERIAL LIN-PACT: Lin shoots over Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. (Photo: Mike Segar/Newscom)

After enduring plenty of bench-warming on his third team in two years, Lin finally got his number called by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni on February 6, and delivered a breakout performance — 25 points and seven assists to lead New York to victory. Since then, he’s continued to string together impressive performances as a starter, and until that inevitable loss on Friday night, the Knicks rode Lin’s breakout heroics back to NBA respectability after a long search for team identity.

This would be impressive on any NBA team. But by playing with such passion and fire in a media-saturated environment like New York, Jeremy Lin has captured the attention of fans, players and celebrities across the nation, garnering an undeniably palpable buzz. He’s showing up not only on ESPN Sportscenter, but on The Colbert Report and the Huffington Post.

How big is Jeremy Lin right now? He got a standing ovation after hitting a game-winning three-pointer — by fans of the opposing team.

Lin-sane reactions

It’s no wonder that Lin has been called the Taiwanese Tim Tebow — on top of all the basketball hype, Jeremy Lin has taken a public stand as a Christian. He’s spoken at length about his faith in God and how it fuels him as a player and as a person. He even gave a shout out to gospel rapper Lecrae when asked about his favorite music.

And yet, I can’t help but wince, just a little bit, when I hear all of this effusive praise. I worry a little for Jeremy Lin, and it has little to do with basketball.

Lin’s ascent into the spotlight reminds me of another popular ball-playing Harvard graduate-turned-rock-star. Like J-Lin, our 44th president burst on the scene by making a big splash — instead of February at MSG in 2012, it was July at the DNC in 2004.

And just like Barack Obama in 2008, Lin is attracting, along with the waves of adulation, an undertow of bitter resentment. A national sportswriter made a tasteless putdown regarding his sexuality. Boxer Floyd Mayweather asserted via Twitter that if Lin were Black, he would not be getting so much hype. And even though that smacks of more than a little jealousy, and probably resonates with a history of racial hostility between Blacks and Asians, there is a grain of truth there. Would there be this much hype for a non-Asian player? If he were White, maybe. If he were Black, probably not.

Then there was the offensive and racially charged headline used by ESPN after the Knicks’ Friday loss that eventually led to the firing of one of the sports networks employees and the suspension of another. Even if we wanted to play down Lin’s ethnic background and simply appreciate him as a good basketball player, we cannot. One cannot log a significant racial milestone in this nation without stirring up a little drama.

The fact is, Jeremy Lin is Asian, and that matters a lot. It matters to other Asian Americans, and it matters to Blacks. (It even matters to white Americans, though they might not say it.)

Lin and the politics of identity

Watching Lin as a Black man gives me a little bit of insight into what it might have felt like watching Obama as a White person in 2008. See, competition is often a zero-sum game, where one person cannot win unless another person loses. So J-Lin’s staggering celebrity touches a place of insecurity for some Black folks, because it feels like an intrusion into a place of previously held dominance. Larry Wilmore of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show provides an over-the-top but thought-provoking commentary on the issue. Watch it below:

The unspoken assumption is that Asians are supposed to beat you with a calculator, not a crossover. Sorta like a decade ago when Tiger Woods started tearing up golf courses left and right, and all of the White golfers who never expected that kind of performance from someone so young and non-White were more than a little miffed. When someone comes in and violates all of your assumptions, it can be a little disconcerting.

And that’s part of the reason why I want folks to slow down a little on the Linsanity hype train. It’s not because I don’t think he’s a good player. He’s clearly a very good player, and he has a chance to become great. But in the group-centered ethic of Asian American culture, Lin must know, on some level, that he is representing Asian Americans every time he steps on the court. The brighter the lights, the bigger the pressure. I know that Jeremy Lin doesn’t want to be seen as simply a marketing ploy or a gimmick, but the further out-of-proportion the hype gets from reality, the more he looks like exactly that.

I worry that Lin will be fed into the grinder of 21st century mass media, where we put our celebrities on pedestals just so we can knock them down when they displease us.

And the pedestal is much higher for a professing Christian.

Cult of Christian celebrity

Seems like every time there’s a high-profile young person with a Christian persona, the gatekeepers of the Christian establishment trot them out in front of the impressionable even-younger people, so that they’ll have a good role model. So I imagine that Jeremy Lin will soon have a publicist. If that person is good at her job, she’ll have him at conferences, concert appearances, and basketball camps throughout the offseason.

None of those things are wrong, of course, but I just hope he also has someone else in his life screening some of that stuff out, so that he can continue to work on his game and develop as a person. If sports is the ultimate reality TV, then Jeremy Lin deserves more than to become the next Christian reality TV star.

After all, the last NBA player that I remember having so public a faith-based persona when he entered the league was Dwight Howard. And that reputation has since taken a beating, not only for the hysteria surrounding his trade demands, but for fathering several children out of wedlock.

I hope that Jeremy Lin can be more than a bright star who flames out too soon. But part of what he’ll be needing to accomplish that is a little more time — to work on his game, and to find more ways to meaningfully engage his eager public. After yesterday’s game, he politely pleaded with the media to respect the privacy of his family in Taiwan who are apparently being bombarded with attention in the wake of Lin’s success. So if you really want to support him, the best thing you can give him right now is give him breathing room to play basketball without the added weight of being the latest Christian celebrity or the shining representative of all Asian Americans.

Just don’t give him too much room, ’cause I hear he’s getting pretty good from distance.

About the author, Jelani Greenidge

Jelani Greenidge is an UrbanFaith columnist based in Portland, Oregon. A writer and musician, he blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com.
  1. I like this column. Your concern for Jeremy Lin and his celebrity is a real one. I pray that he truly is surrounded by strong brothers and sisters in Christ who’ll keep him grounded in reality because, at some point, the Linsanity is going to end. He’ll need to settle in as a good basketball player for this to mean anything to him. I loved the clip from the Daily Show. It was very funny, but it does shine some light on the resentment that can arise in the heart of any person no matter their race. Great job!

    P.S. – There are a few typos towards the end of this article.

    • Thanks, Edward. We made the corrections.

  2. I think what it shows is the danger of living isolated from other races and cultures. When I attended a predominantly white church in which many people didn’t have many relationships with people of color, I once had someone ask me why my friend (who also was African-American) and I looked so much alike. Really?? Living in isolation will have you ask ignorant questions like that without knowing how offensive it is. Much like the “chink in the armor” headline. That is offensive to Asians, but when you live as though you’re the only one on the planet, you live unaware of history and what others may find offensive.

  3. I would have to disagree with this article on some points. See, I am an Asian American (Christian) so I think we might have some different points to make about this discussion. I don’t really think its fair to say that “issues of Asian Stereotypes makes the African American community feel unsettled,” that that statement that this article tries to make is a fair one. I think although it might be true that it does cause some people to believe that stirring these kinds of issues up might not be completely good, my question is, when does “the truth” ever come out without stirring stuff up?? For so long in this country I feel as though its been all about African Americans and their struggle with race, fairness, identity and the story of how African Americans overcame that. And that is a beautiful thing, no doubt. So my question is, when Asian Americans truly have our first Asian American Hero and superstar that is starting to grow, why do some African Americans seem to be against some of the other “unsettling” issues that are coming out of the woodwork. I would think if anything, African Americans would be the race that “can understand” the most what Asians have had to endure with the stereotypes put on us, and the limitations it caused Asian Americans. I would also think that African Americans would be the first race to come out and support Asians as we “thankfully” smash these stereotypes. And see, the only way to do that as African Americans should well know is to cause a little bit of a stir and commotion. To argue my point, I would agree that if Jeremy Lin wasn’t Asian, then maybe yes (Im actually gonna admit this) that he might not be getting as much attention. But I would also have to argue that if Jeremy Lin had been African American, he would have not have been questioned over and over about “are these real skills?” is this just a fluke? Can he really ball? Do you see my point, Its a double standard. Because Jeremy would not be questioned and criticized as much as he is about his physical ability if he was African American. And why is that? Well obviously its because the world associates basketball players and super athletic males more with African Americans (another stereotype). So see the problem here? It is an awesome thing that Jeremy is breaking this stereotype! And I hate to say it but most skeptics seem to come from African Amercians first, and then other races, because quiet frankly, people believe an Asian cant play basketball! Come on man, there’s no way. Even Jeremy himself said that he cant go out and win 1 game, but he has to go out and do it again and again to get people to see that the is really that good. And quiet frankly he has done just that. But I think even if Jeremy Lin were to win a championship he would still have many nay sayers. And hey that’s the way its gonna be until the Asian Stereotypes are completely broken. Also, there was a stereotype that a little Asian Man called Mannie Pacquiao couldnt fight. Well look now. I just dont think this article is fair, because it is pretty much saying that “now that Asian Americans are finally getting their story told about their race issues and struggles, that we need to not focus on that, because its making African Americans feel unsettled, because African Americans quiet frankly own all the issues about race” Whats really happening is that the spotlight for once in a long time is being put onto Asian Americans and our struggle with race, and it is bugging some people, but that doesn’t mean its a bad thing,. I dont even want to get into all the sterotypes that are obviously still out there in the world and United States conscious and subconscious about Asian Stereotypes. And there is proof everywhere from all the horrible comments in the media being accidentally made lately. From the ESPN “Chink In The Armour” to the Fortune Cookie with Lin’s face on TV. ” I mean these are the things that people think and don’t say, but when they come out of the woodwork it shows how far we have to go to kill these Asian stereotypes, and smashing them. And if making some other races feel “unsettled” about these issues has to happen top smash these ideas, then I say bring on all the unsettled racial feelings in the world. Remember to expose truth and find truth, its never a “setting” thing, its always a little “unsettling. ” African Americans know that more then any race. Btw, my best friend is African American, and we are able to talk about these deep issues of race, and I learn stuff from his point of views and he learns stuff from me as well. And at times I feel unsettled by what he tells me, and at times I make him feel unsettled, but in the end, truth comes out, stereotypes go away, and the play ground becomes more fair and equal for every race. One last point that I wanted to make is that if you really think about it Jeremy Lin truly is the first “superstar “Celebrity” sports superstar that Asian “Americans have had in the United States Period. I argue this because none of these names count, Jet-Li, You Ming, Bruce-Lee, ya see all of these names as far as superstars have all been born of Asian descent. Jeremy Lin is the first person that was born in the United States with equal opportunity, he was a normal Asian kid on the block, he was that quiet cool, humble Asian kid that all of us had as a friend. He liked Video Games and eating junk food, just a normal Asian American kid, that all Asian Amercians and Americans period can relate too. And then he seized his dream as an Asian American and flew to moon with it. If you think of most other races they all have had and have so may superstars, but Asians seem to be lacking when it comes to actual Asian American superstars. Well now we have one. So let us enjoy it to the full. You guys have enjoyed so many countless superstars in sports and beyond in the limelight. And I cant count how may have stirred up a little bit of race issues as they descended to the starts. Its bound to happen, and in my opinion its healthy for exposing truth and light into every race, because it makes us look into ourselves and ask questions about what we believe about race, and how honestly as human beings period, not African American, or Asian or Mexican or whatever, that we as humans always need to be questioning and growing and seeking towards the truth, because truth eventually brings love and peace. – An Asian American Man

    • AAAM,

      It seems like we agree on many points. You said you disagreed with my article on several points, but it’s not clear to me which ones. I’m gonna do my best to interpret what you wrote, and feel free to tell me if I’ve misunderstood you.

      It seems like your biggest point is “leave J-Lin alone and let us Asians enjoy our first superstar,” and your second point is, “why are African-Americans so threatened by this guy?”

      The second point I think I’ve made pretty clear… but maybe what wasn’t so clear was this — this insecurity that many Blacks have exhibited is NOT A GOOD THING. We are not celebrating this. Quite frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. That Daily Show clip with Larry Wilmore is funny because it’s exaggerated, but it’s also indicative of the way a lot of Blacks folks are feeling, even if they don’t say it publicly. That doesn’t mean that Asian people are wrong for celebrating their hero… not at all. It’s just an explanation of behavior that, to someone non-Black, might appear confusing.

      As for your main point… I don’t think anyone is saying you should stop cheering for J-Lin. I was cheering for J-Lin in a small way ever since he was drafted by GSW. I’m just saying, let’s not blow his achievement out of proportion, because even though it may seem like it’s a good thing for Asians as a whole, it may not be such a great thing for Lin himself.

  4. Jelani, Good points, but I still say Jeremy Lin will be fine. He has been through a lot of adversity that has prepared him for this. Like he said, God’s finger prints have been all over his life preparing him for this moment. The Lord knows everything so I’m sure the Lord knew that Jeremy would also cause these kinds of stir ups as far as race goes. I believe Jeremy will stay grounded with his faith and God will protect him. Its God’s anointing on his life that causes him to play so well I believe. – As long as he stays on the path then all these other issues will fall off of him, and the truth will win. Also, if you compare the positive to the negative media, its still like 99 percent positive media that is coming out about him, and only a small 1 percent about the whole negative race issues. He will be fine. He handled himself well after his first loss, and will continue to do well when he struggles again. But teh followign facts are now clear: 1.He can ball with the best of them. 2. He will only grow and get better. 3. I honestly don’t see anyone that can do what he does in his own way on the NBA. In other words, hes doing something not only well, but unique. 4. He loves to compete and win and he loves basketball more then the fame and hype. 5.Even if he does not end up as big in the end, he has his ministry and social work that he wants to eventually do. He will be fine.

  5. Well argued from both Jelani and An Asian American Man’s perspectives! Bravo! Bring Jeremy Lin on!! We POC need to engage each other in this way anyway.

  6. Yes, exactly my point Anna. We need these types of discussions because it brings out all of those little racial issues that remain in the “grey” area. I mean lets be real I believe that those ESPN guys didn’t mean to say what they said about a Chink in the Armour, but the problem is that under the surface and in our sub conscious, there still remains some prejudices that need to be put away. I’m even guilty for still having racial things come up in my mind that I will now question because of Jeremy Lin. And those ESPN guys also showed this. I think what it is as well is a lot of white, African Americans, Asians are also so worried and almost scared to say the wrong thing these days, that maybe they are afraid to ask other races about what they know might be their ignorant thinking. So because of “fear” people keep these subtle prejudices and ignorant ideas tucked away because quiet frankly, they don’t have anyone to ask , “is this wrong to say? or “what do African Americans think about this? or what do Asians think about this? So I think the fact that it brings up these discussions can help different races understand each other. Every race is so beautiful but so unique and every race sees things a little differently and also is racially sensitive in “different’ ways. That’s what people have to understand. Racial discrimination is viewed differently from race to race. What an African American views as insulting and discriminating will be different then what a White person feels and an Asian feels. Obviously there are a lot of “human” Similarities between races like the 10 commandments. Know one wants to be killed or stoles from etc. But after that, there are a lot of small differences between how different races perceive things. I think without open discussion and freedom to talk about these things, then that’s where prejudice thoughts become worst and have time to grow. So to paraphrase we need a few things 1. We need a topic that can bring up these racial issues that still exist (Jeremy Lin in this case) 2.We need the freedom for all races to come to the table and talk “openly” about what we think and perceive about different race ideas and perceptions. 3.We need to know that we wont get beat up for perhaps actually having the wrong idea when we come to the table of discussion , because in order to learn we have to get out our thoughts about race which might be way off.

    Im sure everyone of us will have some thoughts that are wrong a little bit. But to get rid of ignorance you have to have truth and make some mistakes. If we were better at doing this as a country then I promise a lot of anger, crime, misconception, hate, which ultimately stems from ignorance would be erased from our society.

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