Jeremy Lin’s so-far-brief but amazing performance for the New York Knicks has set the world on fire in a mere month.
Most NBA superstars are not 23-year-old Harvard graduates. And they are rarely devout Christians and second-generation Taiwanese-Americans. The fact that Lin is an anomaly has guaranteed both sensationalism and controversy, at least some of it politically incorrect. Take professional boxer Floyd Mayweather’s recent remark that “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”
Despite his crassness, Mayweather may be onto something, but not in the simplistic fashion he thinks. In Lin’s storybook saga, it is hard to sort out all the racial-stereotyping and affirmative-action undertones, but I think it goes something like this: Lin was probably not given earlier opportunities commensurate with his proven talents, given that both Harvard graduates and Asians (perceived in the NBA as a twofer disadvantage) are probably unfairly stereotyped by basketball players, coaches, and general managers as less physical and more nerdy — and therefore not as athletic as either black or white players.
Yet, once the Knicks gave Lin even a small chance to display his innate talent, the profiling vanished. His undeniable merits as a shooting, passing, and driving point guard have earned him almost all of the recognition that he has garnered. Remember, the NBA is a for-profit league and prides itself on judging players solely on talent — questions of diversity or proportionate racial representation, usually, be damned. After all, the Knicks began winning with Lin playing more, and should they start losing with him in the lineup, his current celebrity status will gradually wilt away.
But that’s not quite the end of the irony. Mayweather claims that Lin is still getting excessive attention based on his race, as if racism were at work in winning him inordinate praise for the same sort of skills that the African-American majority in the NBA displays each day.
Again, Mayweather is both right and wrong. True, Lin’s unusual background makes him a minority within his field and thus warrants unusual recognition beyond his resonance in the Asian community. But that fact is not due to Lin’s being Asian per se. Were Lin a native Amazonian or from the North Pole, his unusual profile might likewise be a force multiplier to what he could earn from his undeniable skill and his contribution to his team’s sudden success. The career of Tiger Woods is similar in that the combination of his talent and his unusual background ensured the sort of recognition that other gifted golfers could only dream of.
In that regard, I am sure that in the last 50 years there have been all sorts of Harvard Law Review editors who had far more articles published during their tenure than did Barack Obama. Yet few were well known outside of Harvard and had secured book deals before graduating — it was apparently deemed far more unusual for an African-American with a Kenyan-sounding name to serve as editor. (And one might argue further that Lin’s actual performance, at least so far, better warrants his extraordinary publicity than did Obama’s so-so record as a Harvard Law Review editor.)
In other words, what is not the norm always garners extra attention, sometimes warranted by actual performance, sometimes not. This is a fact that transcends race.
There are a few final politically correct paradoxes on display here. We are conditioned to think that diversity and race-based proportionality are mandatory goals in American government, the public workplace, and the highly prized professions. If so, why not in the most high-profile and most highly compensated jobs in our society, such as those in professional basketball and football, where African-Americans are represented at rates seven to eight times greater than their percentage of the general population?
Mayweather has no problem with the fact that African-Americans are vastly over-represented (if such an objectionable term means in comparison to relative percentages of the general population) in high-profile, merit-based sports –especially boxing, basketball, and football. Indeed, he seems to wrongly denigrate Lin as a sort of affirmative-action player whose identity trumps his talent in earning him a stature that would be impossible without race-based considerations. But that is precisely the line of argument, fairly or not, that others have made against affirmative action in general. In other words, how can one be for racial-diversity considerations in the police or fire department, but not in the NBA or NFL?
Yet, in a mixed-up America, we still like to think that achievement eventually trumps identity politics. Whether it’s Tiger Woods, Barack Obama, or Jeremy Lin, their accolades will depend mostly on how well they perform.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.