When It Comes to Sports, Race Still Matters

The emergence of Jeremy Lin as international superstar, and resulting tweets from Jason Whitlock and Floyd Mayweather, has prompted widespread debate about whether or not race matters in both the media representation and in understanding the arch of his career.  Without a doubt, race matters when talking about Lin given his path to the NBA, prejudice experienced while on the court (see here for examples; see here broader discussion), and the larger context of anti-Asian racism.  Lin is not evident of some post-racial fantasy, but instead a reminder of how race matters. It matters whether talking about sports, housing, education, foreign policy, economic inequality, media culture, and interpersonal relations.

Race matters when examining the media representations of Black athletes, whether were talking about the demonization of Michael Vick (the most despised athlete in America), Barry Bonds, or LeBron James; it matters in look at the stories of redemption afforded to Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Hamilton, or the lack of media attention directed at Kevin Love following his recent stomp.  To deny the impact and significant of race with Lin is as absurd as deploying “the race denial card” in these contexts as well. To imagine Lin outside of the scope of race and racism, or to isolate race as something usual in this instance, especially given the ways that the NBA is associated with blackness (the subtext here feels as if the discussion is being reduced to anti-Asian prejudice from African Americans), represents an immense failure.

So race matters when thinking about Lin’s recruitment (or lack thereof) out of high school and his path to the NBA, as race matters when talking about employment discrimination. 

Racism holds people back in every industry, from higher education to the business world. Researchers at the Discrimination Research Center, in their study “Names Make a Difference,” argue that racial discrimination represents a significant obstacle for employees.  Having sent out 6,200 resumes with similar qualifications to temporary employment agencies, the authors found that those with names associated with the Latino and white communities received callbacks more frequently than those presumed to be African American or South Asian/Arab American (called back the least frequently).

Similarly, MIT professors Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan concluded that perspective applicants with “White sounding names” are 50 percent more likely to receive a callback after submitting a resume than were those with “Black sounding names.”  They concluded that Whiteness was as much an asset as 8 years of work experience, demonstrating that race has a significant impact on one’s job future.  In their study, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” the authors conclude, “While one may have expected that improved credentials may alleviate employers' fear that African-American applicants are deficient in some unobservable skills, this is not the case in our data. Discrimination therefore appears to bite twice, making it harder not only for African-Americans to find a job but also to improve their employability” (“Employers’ Replies to Racial Names” 2003).

In a society where those with "Black sounding" and "Muslim sounding" names receive call backs from perspective employments with 50% less frequency, this an opportunity to talk about systemic racism. 

Isolating or particularizing racism represents not only a failure to use Lin’s experiences as a teachable about persistent racism, but reinscribes model minority myth all while failing to see the ways in which racism operates throughout society.  Writing about Lin, Ling Woo Liu, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, notes, “Hopefully one day, Americans of Asian descent will no longer be seen as foreigners, economic competition or anything less than equal Americans. Until then, race matters, whether we like it or not.”  Likewise, until African Americans are no longer seen as criminals, welfare queens, and undesirable potential employees, until Latinos are no longer seen as exploitable labor, “illegals” and “unassimilable,” race matters.  Reflecting on persistent privilege and the racism is a difficult process, and the media coverage of Jeremy Lin provides opportunity, one that shouldn’t be missed, to expand rather than shrink that conversation.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).