NewBlackMan: #LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball

#LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackman

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.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: #LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball.

NewBlackMan: Book Review | The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World

 

 

Book Review | The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World

Daring Then, Daring Now: The John Carlos Story

Book Review by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Having studied the 1968 Olympic protest, having conducted an interview with Harry Edwards on the revolt of the black athlete, and being someone dedicated to understanding the interface between sports, race and struggles for justice, I was of course excited about the publication of John Carlos’ autobiography, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World. Written with Dave Zirin, the book provides an inspiring discussion of the 1968 Olympics without reducing the amazing life of John Carlos to the 1968 Olympics. More than 1968 or the protests in Mexico City, it chronicles a life of resistance, of refusing to accept the injustices that encompass the African American experience.

John Carlos challenged American racism from an early age. Readers learn of a young man who “went around Harlem handing out food and clothes like Robin Hood and his merry men in Technicolor” (p. 21). Recognizing the level of poverty and injustice in Harlem, and refusing to stand idly by, a young Carlos would break into freight trains to steal food with the purpose of giving it to those who had been swallowed up by the system.

The experience of stealing groceries and good and giving the people something for nothing was positive. Just doing this kind of so-called work opened up my mind and got me to notice what was going on around me. I couldn’t turn my back when I saw evidence of discrimination in the community. I captured it in my mind every time I saw anyone in my neighborhood mistreated by the police (p. 27).

These experiences, like his having to give up on the dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer as a result of societal racism, not only politicized Carlos, but also instilled in him a passion and commitment to help others reach their dreams. It taught about the power and necessity of imagining and fighting for “freedom dreams.”

The John Carlos Story chronicles the ways he has lived a life guided by the philosophy articulated by Fredrick Douglas that “power concedes nothing without demand.” From his organizing a strike at his high school against “the nasty slop they called ‘food’” (p. 33) to his insistence that the manager at the housing protects where he lived address the problem of caterpillars in the courtyard, John Carlos demanded accountability and justice long before 1968.

His book illustrates the level of courage he has shown throughout his life. When the manager refused to address the caterpillar problem, which prevented his mother from joining others in the courtyard because of allergic reactions, Carlos once again lived by the creed: power concedes nothing without demand. John Carlos has lived a life of demanding justice and in the face of refusal demanding yet again. He describes his response in this case as follows:

Then I took the cap off the can and doused the first tree in front of me with gasoline. Then I reached for a box of long, thick wooden matches. After that first tree was soaked, I struck one of the stick matches against my zipper and threw it at the tree and watched. It was a sought: the fire just as that tree like it was a newspaper and turned it into a fireball of fried caterpillars (p. 41).

The compelling life that Carlos and Zirin document extends beyond his youth further reveals a life dedicated to justice. His refusal to accept the racism and the mistreatment experienced while living in Texas encapsulates how America’s racism and systematic efforts to deny both the humanity and citizenship of African Americans compelled Carlos’ activism as a young man and ultimately as an Olympian.

The protest at the 1968 Olympics should not be a surprise given the racial violence experienced by Carlos and his brothers and sisters throughout United States (and the world at large).

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Book Review | The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.