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