Jeremy Lin and the Myth of Black Athletic Superiority

Jeremy Lin, a graduate of Harvard University with a major in Economics and former basketball for the Crimson, is now playing for the New York Knicks as a guard. If you haven’t heard about Lin yet, you must not pay close attention to men’s professional basketball. Lin’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. Lin went from not being picked up in the 2010 NBA draft, to playing on a couple of teams I’ve never even heard of, to playing for the Golden State Warriors (an NBA team to be sure, but still…), to now playing for the New York Knicks where he was instrumental in a win over the powerhouse LA Lakers. Who is this guy? Lin’s story is the stuff sports dreams are made of. But of course, with all the excitement and hype Lin was bound to arouse the ire of a couple of ‘haters’.

Both blacks and Asians have been the victims of the pernicious stereotypes–black people are supposedly more athletic than other groups while Asians are all super-duper smart, they’re “model minorities”. Less than two months ago I sat in a class where the professor of my management class thought it would be funny to play off some well-worn stereotypes for a few kicks and giggles. According to my professor, last semester an Asian girl has earned more that the required points to get an A in the class and “if an Asian girl can do it, you all can do it too.” In another class shortly thereafter, this same professor showed a picture of four people dressed in business attire crossing the finish line of a race; two of the business-clothing clad people were white men, who were crossing the finish line first, followed by a whit woman with a black male bringing up the rear. My professor said that he was surprised that photo didn’t have the woman winning the race, and “oh, look at this, a black guy bringing up the rear, you know how fast they are…” Yes, in 2012 I was subjected to these jokes in an auditorium full of colleges students, some of whom laughed while others looked like they just didn’t know how to respond.

So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Lin acknowledges that he has been subject to jokes about his race. ESPN.com fired a staffer who published a headline with a derogatory epithet that has been used to refer to people of Asian descent.

What is worst of all is that some of the most racially insensitive remarks made about Lin have come from famous African-American males, who one would think would know better considering how they themselves has surely been subject to racist stereotypes. On twitter producer/director Spike Lee referred to Lin as follows: Jeremy “Kung Fu Hustle” Lin; Jeremy “Hidden Dragon”Lin; and, Jeremy “Crouching Tiger” Lin. Boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr., tweeted, “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian.” To an extent, what Mayweather says is true. Asian players have been a rarity in the NBA, but the rarity of Asian players in basketball shouldn’t detract from the fact that Lin seems to be a genuinely good player–look at his stats, watch Lin play–with a tremendous amount of potential for a long and successful career.

There seems to be something a bit more sinister coming from Lin’s male African-American detractors, something that hints at a fear that if non-blacks were to begin dominated the NBA, the myth of black male athletic superiority might be challenged. And if black males are not naturally athletic, then what exactly are black men ‘naturally’ good at doing? If the myth of superior black athleticism goes out the window, then what will be left to maintain the black male mystique?

I expect Lin’s rise in the NBA to break down stereotypes that would claim Asians are star academicians but that it should be surprising if Asians are also star athletes. And if the edifice of the stereotype of black men being naturally athletic also comes crashing down, which would in turn lead to an acknowledgement that blacks are good at a whole host of activities that don’t involve athleticism, well…that would be a good thing too. Now is as good a time as any to stop stereotyping an entire racial/ethnic group of people.

The Man Myth