Not-so-accidental racism at ESPN

February 22, 2012

Sportswriters have to stop talking about how race has nothing to do with Jeremy Lin.

THE SPECTACULAR New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin made more headlines on February 19 by leading his team to victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, with 28 points and a career-high 14 assists.

But that's not the only reason Lin is in the news. Outrage erupted when ESPN's website posted a headline about the NBA's first American player of Chinese origin that read, "Chink in the Armor."

Seriously. An ESPN anchor previously used the same phrase in an interview with Knicks Hall of Fame guard Walt Frazier, and it had also been uttered on ESPN radio. But the webpage was captured and the frozen image went viral.

ESPN quickly posted a statement as bloodless as it was insufficient, which read: "Last night,'s mobile website posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 a.m. ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 a.m. ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake." Then they told the media that this would be their only comment on the matter.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

After outrage ensued, this was followed by another statement that the headline writer has been fired and the anchor has been suspended for 30 days.

There are only two conclusions one can draw from all of this. Either ESPN has a group of stone racists sitting at the SportsCenter Desk, hosting their radio shows and writing headlines (doubtful), or they have no anti-racist mental apparatus for how to talk about an Asian-American player. As a result, we see again that people of Asian descent are subject to a casual racism that other ethnic groups don't have to suffer quite as starkly.

No one at ESPN would talk or write about a lesbian athlete and unconsciously put forth that the woman in question would have a "finger in the dike." If an African American player was thought of as stingy, it's doubtful that anyone at the World Wide Leader would describe that person as "niggardly." They would never brand a member of a football team as a "Redskin" (wait, scratch that last one).

They wouldn't do it because a mental synapse would spark to life and signal their brain that in 2012, unless you're speaking at CPAC, that's just not okay. This collective synapse was forged by mass movements for black and LGBT liberation in this country that have forced a lot of people, particularly white straight men, to have a clue.

There simply hasn't been a similar national struggle built by people of Asian descent. I spoke about this with William Wong, a longtime journalist born and raised in Oakland's Chinatown, and he said:

We haven't had a national mass Asian-American civil rights movement because our numbers have been small and diffuse, thanks to various exclusionary and discriminatory laws. Our communities are also too diverse in terms of American history and intra-Asian cultural and political differences.

But we should note that many Asian-Americans in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were energized by the larger civil rights movement to organize an Asian-American movement in states like California, Washington and New York, where we had the numbers to come together.

This is true. In places with concentrations of people willing to stand up, Asian-Americans have come together across differences of language and origin to demand respect and equal rights, often in the face of terrible violence.

THE QUESTION is, what happens now. We have seen everyone with a media profile trying to grab a little bit of Jeremy Lin's shine. Sarah Palin is posing with Linsanity shirts. The cringe-inducing David Brooks is writing unreadable columns about what Lin "represents." Every sports/culture/political writer wants to have their say and bask in Lin's glow. Let's see if people rushing to stand with Jeremy Lin will stand up for him as well.

If one good thing comes out of this, maybe sportswriters can stop saying that they don't think the issues of race and ethnicity have 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 very kind of casual racism Lin has faced--the anti-Asian Twitter jokes, the Yellow Mamba signs, the mock Chinese talk, the catcalls from people attending the games--is something every single Asian-American has experienced at one time or another. That it happens at all is a sad fact; that ESPN is now in a position of having to apologize for something which never should have happened shows just how far we have to go.

Last week, in an ESPN column, Asian-American writer Jay Caspian Kang is quoted as saying, "If you can't look at Jeremy Lin and see why America is the greatest country in the world, well, then you don't understand America."

We'll leave aside for a moment the substance of this comment: the fact that the United States, in the theater of war, has performed genocidal crimes against people who were called the same epithets as Jeremy Lin. We'll leave aside the fact that people of Asian descent were interned on U.S. soil or the hate crimes they silently suffer in schoolyards and on street corners that persist with little national outrage or discussion.

We'll leave that aside, and just say that in the wake of his own employer's accidental slips, Kang should perhaps amend his statement to: "If you don't understand why racism still infects the Lin story and why there is an urgent need to stand up against it, then you really don't understand America."

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