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RACE AND THE GAME

 

By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackman

 

Monday, February 27, 2012.

 

Over the last week, there has been significant discussion about how race is playing out within the media and fan reception of Jeremy Lin. Focusing on anti-Asian slurs, prejudice, and stereotypes, the media narrative has not surprisingly provided a simplistic yet pleasurable narrative. Imagining racism as simply bias that can be reduced through exposure and education, the media discourse has erased the powerful ways that sports teaches race and embodies racism. As Harry Edwards argues, sports recapitulates society, whether it be ideology or institutional organization.

 

According to Marc Lamont Hill, professor of education at Columbia, “blackness is at the center” of the media’s Linsanity. Seeing basketball as a space of blackness, “the whole undertone is irony, bewilderment and surprise.” Harry Edwards, Sociology Professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, highlights the predicable narrative, which reflects the fact that “we live in a niche society.” This encourages people to “retreat into traditional storylines.” Irrespective of facts or specifics, the deployed media narrative has retreated to a place that depicts the NBA as a black-league defined by athleticism and hip-hop that is changing before our eyes. The arrival of Jeremy Lin, who the media continues to cast in the role of the “model minority” whose intellect, personality, and overall difference is providing the league with something otherwise unavailable, is constructed through a narrative black-Asian conflict.

 

Replicating stereotypes, the undercurrent of the Lin narrative, the media inducted fantasy, has been his juxtaposition to the league’s black players. “Discussions about the NBA are always unique because the NBA is one of the few spaces in American society where blackness, and specifically black masculinity, is always at the center of the conversation, even when it's not. Power is often defined by that which is assumed, as opposed to that which is stated,” noted Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC, in an email to me. “Because black masculinity is the norm in the NBA, it goes without saying. Concurrently any conversation about race in the NBA inevitably refers back to this norm. In other words, people seldom describe someone as a ‘black basketball player’ because the race of the player is assumed in this construction.

 

So any current discussion about Jeremy Lin is taking place within the context of a league and its history where the dominant players have long been black men. Lin is ‘the other’ as it were, but here the standard is black, not white, as would normally be the case in most other environments.” From the constant references to his being “humble” and “team-oriented,” to his widely circulated idea that he came out of no where and that his career is one of low expectations and being overlooked, the media narrative has imagined him as the anti-black baller. The stereotypes of both Asian Americans and blacks guide the media narrative.

 

According to Oliver Wang, “Some in the Asian American community are following "Linsanity" with caution, especially as commentators praise Lin for being "hard working," "intelligent" and "humble," words associated with long-standing stereotypes of Asian Americans. Chuck Leung, writing for Slate.com, expressed the fear that "beneath this Linsanity is an invitation for others to preserve these safe archetypes." Whereas black ballers are defined/demonized with references to selfishness and ego, a sense of entitlement that comes from societal fawning, Lin purportedly provides something else. Compared to black players, who are defined through physical prowess and athleticism, Lin, who is 6’3”, extremely physical and athletic, the media has consistently presented him as a “cerebral player” whose success comes from guile, intestinal fortitude, and determination, seemingly discounting his physical gifts and his talents on the floor. Marc Lamont Hill noted a report that described Lin as a “genius on the pick n’ roll.” Continuously noting his Harvard education, his high school GPA, his college GPA, and his economics major all advance the narrative of his exceptionalism and his presumed difference from the league’s other (black) players.

 

On Weekends with Alex Witt, Sports Illustrated columnist and Lin friend Pablo Torre celebrated Lin as a “student of the game,” and as an anomaly. Torre noted that Lin watches game footage at halftime, a practice he says isn’t seen within the NBA. While David West of the Indiana Pacers told me that watching footage is standard practice with the NBA, its usage here is just another example as how Lin is being positioned as NBA model minority and the desired body outside the sports arena.

 

Reflecting on the nature of this discourse, Hiram Perez in an essay about Tiger Woods, describes “model minority rhetoric” as both homogenizing the Asian American experience through professed stereotypes and celebration of Asian American accomplishments, but “disciplin[ing] the unruly black bodies threatening national stability during the post-civil rights era” (Perez, 2005, p. 226). The caricatured and stereotyped media story with Lin illustrates this dual process, one that reifies stereotypes concerning Asian Americans while at the same demonizing blackness. Historically, the model minority discourse has work to juxtapose homogenized identities, cultures, and experiences associated with Asian Americans and African Americans.

 

According to Anita Mannur, “in recent years Asian Americans have been praised (in contrast to blacks and Latinos) for having ‘assimilated” so well” (Mannur, 2005, p. 86). In other words, Asian Americans exists as a “model minority” within the national imagination “because they [seen] are hard workers” who “do not make a fuss, and are not loud” (Mannur, 2005, p. 86). Likewise, Feagin and Chou argue that, “Asian Americans serve as pawns in the racially oppressive system maintained at the top by whites” (2008, p. 17). Functioning in a “middling status,” (Feagin and Chou, 2008, p. 17) or as “racial bourgeoisie” (Matsuda qtd. in Feagin and Chou, 2008, p. 17), Asian Americans sit between whiteness and racial otherness within dominant racial discourse.” The racial fantasy and the narrative offered through much of the media replicates these dominant frames with ease given the racial landscape of the NBA.

 

Nancy Abelmann and John Lie encapsulate the interconnectedness between model minority, racism, and the condemnation of blackness:

 

The American dream presents a problematic ideal of individual life and community. More crucially for our purpose, however, the constellation of attitudes and institutions that constitutes the American dream has found a powerful articulation in the contrast between the model minority and the urban underclass: Korean Americans embody the American dream, while African Americans betray its promise. The ideological constitution and construction of the “black-Korean conflict” should alert us not only the importance of the broader political economy but also to the necessity of rethinking dominant American ideologies (Abelmann & Lie, 1995: 179-180).

 

We can say that ultimately that America’s love affair the Jeremy Lin narrative is a love of what he purportedly says about America, about the American Dream, and model minority, all of which gains meaning in relationship to blackness.

 

In this regard, his media power and rhetorical utterances embodies an anti-blackness. In “Lin is transcending race and helping to shatter stereotypes,” Shaun Powell defines Lin’s powerful cultural message through accepted stereotypes of both Asianness and blackness:

 

“Lin was ignored in high school, wasn't drafted by an NBA team, couldn't stick with two of them, had to beat the bush leagues and then slept on a sofa because he wasn't sure the Knicks would keep him. Then he caught fire overnight. The first time he scored 38 points in a basketball game in his life, it came against Kobe Bryant. Because nothing was ever expected of him, and no fuss was ever raised over him until a week ago, he isn't spoiled by nature. He's humble and free of the jersey-tugging, preening, gesturing, chest-thumping culture that has polluted sports and soured it for many. That's all part of the legend and the lore by now, and that's why he's getting lots of underdog love.”

 

In an article that deploys all of the main themes of the media’s Linsanity -- (1) Lin as facilitator of colorblindness, as stereotype fighter and dream maker; and (2) as a story of Lin’s fortitude in overcoming discrimination -- Powell focuses his attention on recycling the model minority myth, a narrative fantasy that garners value through the demonization of black ballers. Powell describes Lin “as a gift from the basketball gods to the NBA, which in the past dealt with racial backlash when the league was considered too black to appeal to white America. That ‘game’ has changed, and because of Lin, there's plenty more distance between those days and now. Folks who seldom or never watched the NBA are suddenly into the league and wondering what a certain player will do next." Depicting the league as undesirable and unwatchable for parts of white America, Powell celebrates Lin as anecdote to cure the NBA’s woes. He makes clear that the problems facing the NBA emanates from the failure of its black players. While he argues that Lin shatters stereotypes he simultaneously invokes model minority stereotype and the undesirable hip-hop (black) baller. “Because nothing was ever expected of him, and no fuss was ever raised over him until a week ago, he isn't spoiled by nature. He's humble and free of the jersey-tugging, preening, gesturing, chest-thumping culture that has polluted sports and soured it for many. That's all part of the legend and the lore by now, and that's why he's getting lots of underdog love.” Similarly Jason Whitlock positions Lin as the alternative to hip-hop within the NBA:

 

“Lin's success, even if it disappears, should not be dismissed. There is something to be learned from the results of his play and the absence of two star hip-hop, AAU athletes, 'Melo and Amar'e.

 

Yes, I played the hip-hop culture card. Hip-hop music is a capitalistic success. Hip-hop culture is an utter failure. The me-first, rebellious, anti-intellect culture directly contradicts all the values taught in team sports and most of the values necessary to sustain a civilized society.”

 

Ignoring the fact that Lin can often be seen at time-outs chest bumping with his teammates, ignoring the fact that he flossed his jersey following a 3-pointer against Dallas, and the fact that he often “opens his mouth to reveal a Now and Later-stained tongue” Powell, Whitlock and others demonstrates the ways in which racial fantasy operates here. Lin is a product of and reflective of the hip-hop generation ballers yet Powell and others imagine him in opposition to the polluting influences of the league’s black ballers. Todd Boyd makes this clear:

 

“Consider the stereotypes about NBA players and then consider the stereotypes about Asian Americans in our society. Much of the public discussion about Lin has been informed, consciously or unconsciously, by the notion of the "model minority," which of course is a stereotype often used in relation to Asian Americans. This is not Lin saying such things about himself, but what others have projected upon him. With this in mind, an Asian American from the Bay Area who went to Harvard, is quite vocal about his traditional Christian beliefs, and who got cut a few times before finding his niche, is always going to be easier to support for some people than a rich urban black guy who whose style and whose actions suggest that he is indifferent to the dictates of mainstream society. Though there are many people who are genuinely proud of Lin for all the right reasons, there are certainly others whose celebration of Lin masks some deeper resentment relative to their own perceptions about black players.”

 

There is a lot to celebrate with Jeremy Lin. He is ballin’ and it’s a great story. The pride and celebration that his success has brought is equally powerful. Yet, I am increasingly left with a sour taste in my mouth from the persistent efforts to rehash and recycle longstanding stereotypes of both Asian Americans and African Americans. The celebration of Lin in this context is no celebration at all, but another racial fantasy that validates American exceptionalism and the American Dream. The media discourse is saying much more about us than Lin himself or his game, and it is this media framing, which is about tiresome as anything else.

 

***

 

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.

 

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