Hate and Basketball

When Jeremy Lin broke out in January, his standing as the first Asian-American to start for an NBA team made his race the inescapable target of interest.

 Many headlines of the “Did Race Play a Role in Linsanity?” variety were so fatuous as to drift into Onion territory
Yet at the same time, like a gas filling a vessel, even though race was everywhere, suffusing the pores of Linsanity, it remained ungraspable.

A discussion of what Lin signified within the broader realm of race-in-America never occurred.

 While the sports sociologist Dave Zirin argues that a conversation about the Asian-American male has been started, I have been shocked by how little meaningful analysis there has been. To wit, does every Asian-American now have to be Jeremy — in both achievement and affect — to attain liberation? Here it is worth noting that Asian-American parents have expressed concern that basketball is displacing a focus on education; will Asian children effectively be forced to choose? What was amazing about the characters in Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) is that they made academic decathlon cool — in other words, they rehabilitated a space degraded by racist mainstream America, and did so on its own terms. I will build on Roger Ebert in pointing out that Asian-American suburban ennui being featured as a topic worth exploring in itself may not transcend Lin’s effects, but at least feels closer to where most Asian-Americans actually live.
 By making it in the NBA Lin was disproving the stereotype that Asian-Americans were only studious, quiet, and oriented toward non-athletic achievement; but more than that, because Lin didn’t just play well, but because he played loud, with swagger, against type,
Jay Caspian Kang notes both Lin’s defiance of type and the Asian community’s cognizance of this (although in the next breath Kang concludes with some lines about America’s transcendent greatness so cringe-worthy in their blindness, inaccuracy, and chauvinism that they soil the entire article).
The Asian community’s adulation over the (at least momentary) emancipation from that type seemed to drown out both the puerile tokenization and the troubling racist blowback from mainstream America. A cause for celebration, not reflection. Second, the blowback that did occur was represented as disproportionately coming from African-Americans: Sports reporter Jason Whitlock tweeted a racist derision about Lin’s penis size and by extension the supposed sexual diminutiveness of all Asian males; basketball analyst Stephen A. Smith banged the drum denouncing the media’s obsession with Lin as disproportionate and inappropriate, a theme which boxer Floyd Mayweather piled on in a subsequent tweet. This impelled commentaries on what basketball means to black Americans, and perhaps inspired the much-discussed SNL skit which pointed out that slurs about Asians are dismissed as harmless, while those towards blacks are deemed beyond the pale.

What is striking in all this is that the system itself has been shrouded by the very reactions from Asian- and African-Americans that it generated. In other words, we have been left with two of America’s most potent racial issues eclipsing one another because they have together simultaneously obscured the “dark matter” that lurks behind and animates their orbit: the white side. In this murky domain there seems to be an inchoate desire to weaponize Lin against African-American domination of basketball, making him a proxy Great White Hope, and yet better even than this, better because the average white fan couldn’t cheer unabashedly for a white equivalent of Lin. If a white player had enjoyed Lin’s mercurial rise, cheering for him as a white player would be blatantly racist. But the average white fan doesn’t have this problem with Lin: Lin can be cheered as Lin, as this particular Asian novelty who also contests black hegemony over the world’s most beautiful and compelling sport, one that once belonged to paler players.

Indeed, there’s something in Linsanity that isn’t simply the thrill in an unlikely underdog story, but is rather that of racial animosity and struggle, if not articulated or articulable hatred. This reading has it that white liberal America — maybe not always, maybe only during uglier moments, maybe behind its own back — peels Lin off from the broader Asian-American type to deploy him against the black male body that white males both fear as a threat and desire to have. Moreover, in this act of peeling, Asian-American males as a whole remain nerdy and effeminate; Lin is the exception that proves the rule.

Some talking heads would have us believe these moments of Linsanity were merely exceptional racial outbursts, generating headlines particularly because they are exceptional. Under this logic, America is safely in a post-racial era, evidenced by President Obama’s 2008 election. As absurd as the discussion sounds to many non-white Americans, to those who work with economically marginalized communities, or to those who simply look at the lagging opportunity and outcome statistics for non-white groups, it would be equally absurd to dismiss the post-racial discourse as not producing real material effects. After all, articles that insist America is not post-racial continually need to be written. The interesting aspect is that basketball players, who perhaps have some of the most progressive views on race for reasons I will outline below, also see the canard of a post-racial America most clearly. The Lin situation provides an opportunity to outline those contours by looking at race in America from within the sport itself, aiming to show how, where, when, and with what intensities a society with deeply racialized aspects tips into a one with destructively and violently racist effects.

Credentializing the author or “being the Harvard point guard before it was cool”

I spent an earlier chapter of my life not as someone who played basketball, but as someone whose entire identity was structured and defined by being a basketball player. The level of devotion had a nearly religious feel — or perhaps cultish is the right word given my induction at a young age and the existence of a core cohort of gifted young boys with whom I shared the devotion, the set of rites and practices perpetually repeated, and the many pilgrimages that intensified the devotion.

In seventh and eighth grades, the reason for baggy jeans was so you could wear your basketball gear underneath. You never knew, after all, when a game was going to break out.
 By the time we were 11, we had played an international tournament 1,000 miles from home; by 13 most of us played basketball year round and exclusively; by 15 entire families moved homes so that many of us could play together in high school. Books — or clinical case studies — are yet to be written on why our parents indulged us.

Race, and class and their intersection were inscribed on every aspect of this world. To be raised white and bourgeois in Seattle (an essentially culture-less sphere) and to become a basketball player was to marinate in a foreign culture (of black hip-hop), and to dedicate effort to being accepted in this culture — all while knowing one never really could be, and knowing that to try too hard was offensive, because it had a feeling of false solidarity, of tourism. I knew I had the privilege to ride away any moment. So while I literally prayed that some close family tree analysis would reveal some slight African heritage.

I wince as I admit that I even hoped that my surname “Freeman” would be found to indicate my family’s status as freed slaves.
Until then, I would work on my skills and enjoy the border identity. Basketball was my special pass-card that allowed me into a different world, one that certainly didn’t belong to me.

While I had my own desires and thoughts about how I fit into the messy arena of race and basketball, externally I stood as a representation of the white-player-in-a-black-sport. This didn’t just matter when it came to the racialized characterizations of playing styles (whites are smart,

The trope that white players are “smarter” than blacks is not just insidious, it’s simply wrong. The word “smart” doesn’t match to what gets done on the basketball court: For instance, two of our most brilliant players at Harvard, a 1600 SAT Southerner and a pre-med Canadian Nigerian, often had trouble moving to the right spots on the court. The former also forgot the plays with abandon, and hence was doubly disastrous for our coaching staff, as he would ask clarifying questions — “do we run those screens concurrently or sequentially?” — that always caught them off guard. As for whites being “unselfish” — this is just as silly. I hold the Ivy League record for career assists — a statistic that ranks as stuff white people like — and I insist that assists can be incredibly selfish acts. I lived for the “ooh” of the crowd that came with a particularly risky and successful pass. Often the same scoring play could have been created by making a simpler pass to an intermediary teammate who would then in turn pass to the scorer.
 full of heart, but can’t jump; blacks are athletic but undisciplined) — which could be seen as only harmlessly bigoted — but also how teams coded as “black: and “white”
 “City” and “street ball” versus “suburban,” and “team ball” were typically the codified signifiers.
met in a muted version of race war.

The team aspect is critical — bands of “white” kids versus bands of “black” (even if most every team was at least slightly mixed). Every game had a residue of race covering it, whether acknowledged or not. While each clash didn’t spiral out of control, there were occasionally incidents where the rage, hatred, and violence became palpable (due to players being injured, referees losing control of the game, parents screaming at one another, etc), to the point where the violence became an end in itself. Things were said and done in these moments that were unforgivable,

 I vividly remember an adult, in a moment of blind rage, telling us to “Go beat those niggers.”
 and I can only describe them and the silences that followed as moments of war that couldn’t be communicated, that occurred in particular zones and are not legible to those outside of them.

I held on for a long time to the belief that while America was systemically racist, our team was better than that, basketball was better than that. Something occurred within the bonds of recognition formed on the court that could constitute a small contribution toward navigating America out of its racial trap, creating connections on top of an otherwise deeply abusive and unjust system. In this view, our white players were playing not to dominate another race, but to perform fidelity to basketball itself and hence black America as well, to grasp basketball as the communion wafer that would transubstantiate animosity (or unfamiliarity at the very least) into identification. To win here was to belong. But in the outbursts which repeated themselves across the years I realized that something else was going on as well. To win — especially in the eyes of many around us — was also to destroy, to humiliate, and to dominate. The racism was not some cancer only inside those who exploded with words of hatred, but somehow flowed within the machine that we constructed with the black teams during those particularly charged moments: It was part of all of us. Hence the codified representations — white players are smart, we were a “real team” who “knew how to play the game the way it should be played” — took on an insidious inflection, a way of fighting this battle passively rather than explicitly. We were made into weapons directed at black people.

Can’t spell hoodie without hoodlum

Why was this weaponization necessary? Reading Trayvon Martin’s murder and the Miami Heat’s powerful response to it together provides me some insight. Martin’s death, according to Geraldo Rivera and others on the right, can be attributed as much to Martin’s choice to wear a hooded sweatshirt as to his murderer’s choice to pursue and shoot him. As outraged portions of the pubic have noted, this is akin to blaming the rape victim for wearing provocative clothing. All of this in a country that wraps itself in the mantle of equal rights and claims to “celebrate difference.”

But while black males are compelled to demonstrate their domestication to white America, the threat they embody is at the same time cultivated as some of the only modes of symbolic sustenance made available to them. This black body, historically a threat to white masculinity, is still a potent force in the cultural imagination, and it’s on display for white America in the realm of oppositional culture and sports: both celebrated for its power, and quarantined as being only aesthetically and/or athletically gifted. The oppositional culture developed and sold through commercial hip-hop and the athletic prowess in professional sports both rely fundamentally upon conjuring threat. And so while the explicit threat of the black male body has been diffused into consumer domains – into the sports arena and the music studio, where it can be processed in explicitly non-threatening ways, becoming sterilized and consumable – we also cannot ignore how it retains effects and affects that exceed capture and lead to real violence.

Thus, I read Lebron and Wade’s powerful symbolic statement as a way of saying “Our oppositional culture that you marketize and your children devour is also what you use as an excuse to murder us?” The David Stern-imposed dress code, the racial aspects to last summer’s owner lock-out, Lin’s weaponization all have been building up, such that the attack on the hoodie becomes a metonym for an attack on the hip-hop-listening basketball-playing black man, which is in turn an attack on the black American man himself. Basketball — touted as the “way out” of urban centers for so many black men facing brutal structural inequalities that leave them few other options — becomes a double-edged sword, tied up in a form of cultural expression that is so threatening that it can become a way out of life itself. The task must become to figure out how it could be otherwise.

Through Sports a Different Politics

The basketball player version of me is so located in my past that he often feels wholly disconnected to my present. And yet, he’s also always there, bubbling to the surface without my consent. Watching a televised basketball game my muscles still go taut with anticipation and butterflies often invade my belly when the buzzer goes off to signal the resumption of play. With a whoosh I am back there again. Emerging from that moment has the bittersweet feeling of coming down. But what’s worse in the crushing return of the real is that not only am I not a basketball player any longer, but I’ve lost that pass-card into that zone of black America.

Sports will not save us without a different politics. The beautiful and singular truth-events that can exist between races on the court cannot last, mostly because they get thrown into the domain of representation and turned into other things entirely, turned into low-grade race war. How to prevent this transformation? Those moments of potential need to be politicized before they are captured by the reactionary aspects of our society. These moments of connecting across difference — where difference is not obliterated but rather used as a point of departure from which we can imagine a better, less parochial, more interesting, less indecent world — need to be made explicit as such, turned into coalitions and movements formed between people who share something on the court and hence have an opportunity to enter into the political issues that they respectively face off of it.

Right now so much opportunity in sports falls to waste: Athletes often don’t use the platform they have not only because that they believe it would be a distraction to teammates but also because they don’t believe they have standing to make such a stand. Athletes aren’t supposed to do these sorts of things. But athletes have done so, over and over again! Why do we athletes as a group have so little sense of those visionary political athletes who came before us — those such as Mohammed Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Martina Navratalova, David Meggyesy, Billie Jean King, Roberto Clemente

As highlighted by Dave Zirin in his book A Peoples History of Sports in the USA
 who use their excellence in athletics as a platform to highlight society’s injustices? Perhaps if their histories had been tied up in how athletes learn sport (rather than growing up with Jordan’s “Republicans buy shoes, too”
Zirin writes of Jordan “Much is also expected of those with power. And no athlete has ever had more and done less than Michael Jeffrey Jordan.”
), political actions could be placed in context — seen not as aberrations, but rather as responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean that athletes need become austere militants. Playfulness is an essential aspect to sports, and a dour politics that would insist on humorless athletes would serve no one. But the fact that sports can oscillate on a dime between playfulness and the war described above indicates that there is room for multiple motivations — and that a certain effervescent politics certainly could be inserted as well. Moreover, participating in a political protest and playing in a big game generate many of the same affects: the same feelings of radical commitment, solidarity across difference, teamwork, sacrifice emerge in both; the same drive to win on the court can be brought to the political struggles of our time off of it; and sports loves an underdog story. It’s not farfetched to think that athletes would side with the marginalized and the abused in political movements if provided the encouragement. Given the ugliness in sports, and the way its participants at the highest levels are often manipulated and exploited by capitalist commercialization, 

Kang in a case study of UNC’s Harrison Barnes highlights how self-branding appears to be backfiring, becoming a preoccupation.
it’s time for athletes to wrest their vocation and passion back from those interests and inscribe it with the political meaning that goes beyond the game.