The Jeremy Lin Backlash

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I feel like I should have smelled this coming. Nevertheless, courtesy of Floyd Mayweather Jr, here it is:


"Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian," Mayweather wrote on micro-blogging website Twitter. The NBA's breath of fresh air "Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." 

Lin graduated from Harvard University and initially failed to get drafted into the NBA, but he was signed by the Golden State Warriors as a free agent in July 2010. He moved to New York in December after being dropped by the Houston Rockets and outshone the legendary Kobe Bryant by scoring 38 points as the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers 92-85 on Friday.

I think these sorts of comments ultimately are most revelatory of the person speaking. It does not take incredible reasoning skills to understand that race and talent--as explanatory factors--are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it could that Jeremy Lin is Asian, and that he's talented. But I suspect that it's that Lin is Asian-American, and that he's not a big man, and that he's playing in New York, and that he went to Harvard, and that he was undrafted, and that he is talented. It's true that if he were black this would probably be a smaller story, but if he weren't talented it would not be be a story at all. 

I'm not sure why that's wrong, or even unfair.

I would bet that part of the attention that Neil Degresse Tyson gets has to do with people geeking out on a black astrophysicist who can make science interesting. If were not black he probably would be somewhat less interesting. But if he weren't a good communicator, he would not be interesting at all. 

I consider myself a writer of some merit and talent, who says some interesting things from time to time. That's all very nice. But I understand that if I were in my exact same job, and happened to be just another white dude from an Ivy, I'd attract less interest. Race, as lived by individuals, is biography and people are always interested in biography when it differs from the norm in any field. I have no idea why it should be any different with Lin.

If anything grates, I strongly suspect it's the long-held tension (some) people feel with the NBA as a massively popular product, and yet one that is consistently derided as a home for thugs in need of a dress-code.  The automatic judgement often placed on black ball players that they play "street ball" or don't play the game the "right way" has long disturbed a lot of us. This seems to hold constant no matter how well Chris Webber passes the ball. 

That may have something to do with how the larger world perceives Jeremy Lin, but it has nothing to do with his level of talent. The fact that racists rooted for Larry Bird doesn't then make him overrated. Hitler rooted for Max Schmeling. But Max Schmeling was so much more than that.

The micro and the macro are not the same. It's always dehumanizing to shoe-horn one into the other.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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