Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…

How People of Color Should Re-Interpret the Rules of Race

October 5, 2010

LeBron CNN Interview Screen Shot, September 29, 2010. Source:

Soledad O’Brien, LeBron James (and his foot-in-mouth manager) and Rick Sanchez all have something in common. They are persons of color whose understanding of the rules of race — or the “Rules of Racial Standing,” as law professor Derrick Bell describes them — is about as sophisticated as an amoeba’s. If you ask me, they all played “the race doesn’t matter, even if it does” game, and they all got burned in some way as a result.

O’Brien to many — mostly Black and Latino — came off as a race-baiter, while James looked overly sensitive in his understated response to O’Brien’s “Do you think there’s a role that race plays…?” question. Sanchez was the worst of all, calling Daily Show host Jon Stewart a “bigot” and insinuating that CNN and shows like The Daily Show are controlled by Jews, liberal Jews of course, but Jews nevertheless. All while scoffing at the idea that Jews are an oppressed minority in the US.

It all points to one simple problem. That many, if not most, persons of color in the public eye don’t understand — or care to understand — the rules of race in the media. This is important. For people of color cannot re-interpret these rules without understanding them first.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well Book Cover, October 5, 2010 (Donald Earl Collins)

Derrick Bell‘s “Rules of Racial Standing,” from his bestselling Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), is a guidepost for why independent voices on issues of race are difficult to come by, in law and in the media. But as a person of color, there are ways to re-interpret these rules to make them work in unintended ways, at least, unintended by those in the media. The five rules (and their re-interpretations) are:

First Rule

(“Rule of Illegitimate Standing”) …No matter their experience or expertise, Blacks’ statements involving race are deemed “special pleading” and thus not entitled to serious consideration.

Translation: when in the public idea and asked a question on race, give an unexpected answer, one that is thought-provoking, even controversial, to at least push a more lengthy and serious discussion of race.

Second Rule
(“Rule of Legitimate Standing”) Not only are Blacks’ complaints discounted, but Black victims of racism are less effective witnesses than are Whites, who are members of the oppressor class. This phenomenon reflects a widespread assumption that…cannot be objective on racial issues…

Translation: While even having a DVD or an iPhone filming racist behavior or actions in progress may be ignored, having a multicultural group in support of a complaint will receive much more attention than striking out alone.

Third Rule

(“Rule of Enhanced Standing”) …The usual exception…is the Black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other Blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset Whites. Instantly, such statements are granted “enhanced standing” even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing.

Translation: Let the Tara Wall’s, Anna Holmes’, John McWhorter’s and Dinesh D’Souza’s of this world know that their opinions will not go unchallenged, that their alleged expertise on race is nothing more than an opinion sanitized for center-right consumption. That’s what blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Huffington Post are for.

Fourth Rule
(“Rule of Superenhanced Standing”) When a Black person or group makes a statement or takes an action that the White community or vocal opponents thereof deem “outrageous,” the latter will actively recruit Blacks willing to refute the statement or condemn the action. Blacks who respond to the call for condemnation will receive superstanding status…

Translation: See the re-interpretation of the Second Rule, especially in the case of Fox (or Faux ) News. One Alan Keyes or Alex Castellanos does not equal a group of progressives using their numbers, media savvy and social media as an antidote to the “one sane person of color” rule.

Fifth Rule
(“Rule of Prophetic Understanding”) …Using this knowledge, one gains the gift of prophecy about racism, its essence, its goals, even its remedies. The price of this knowledge is the frustration that…that no amount of public prophecy, no matter its accuracy, can either repeal the Rules of Racial Standing or prevent their operation.

Translation: This may be true, but there are still millions of Americans who would prefer to hear people of color and truly progressive Whites make better use of the media to dilute the piss and vinegar that is pseudo-liberalism and mainstream news these day.

There are exceptions to these rules, such as when someone White or of legitimate standing vouch for his or her otherwise controversial views. But people of color need to bend these rules, break them when necessary. All so that the answer to the question “Was race a factor in…?” isn’t, “No,” or “No, this is a colorblind society,” or “Yes,” without a sophisticated answer. This is what the media wants, not necessarily out of racism, but out of making money. In order to get what Americans need, the media it needs, people of color must resist giving the media the hype that it wants.


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