On Jeremy Lin and how to diligently avoid progress

  • Article by: DAVID BANKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2012 - 6:10 PM

Off-hand headlines and other distractions in our racial quagmire.

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Jeremy Lin

Photo: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press

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There's this kid who plays basketball for the New York Knicks -- a real underdog, a shooting star, and (have you heard?) he's Asian.

The details of Jeremy Lin's rise are readily encountered, so I won't belabor them. Suffice it to say that when someone of whom little is expected accomplishes much, particularly in the sporting arena and particularly when he's considered a novelty, it's a story with legs.

But the party always gets out of hand, which was the case even before this past weekend, when a controversy erupted over the cable sports network ESPN's use of the phrase "chink in the armor" -- once on air, and for a short while in a website headline displayed during the wee hours -- in reference to fleeting defects in Lin's play.

The phrase is a cliché -- what is sports if not war? -- but it was also, in the context, a double-entendre. (Challenge of the day: Pronounce "double-entendre.")

While it took some doing to construe ESPN's usages as intentional racial slurs, plenty of people were willing to make the effort, and soon the network was reeling from the blowback. It fired the unidentified headline writer and suspended the anchor who used the phrase on air.

Over two and a half decades in journalism, I've crafted thousands of headlines, yet I'm still quite capable of producing ones that convey something other than what was intended. If I'm lucky, someone notices before it goes live.

As one Knicks fan was quoted as saying, "If we all got fired for our mistakes, we'd all lose our jobs." So either ESPN had ample other reasons to sack the employee or it has a highly developed rear guard.

Meanwhile, the anchor who used the phrase on air, Max Bretos, apologized publicly in Twitter shorthand. "My wife is Asian, would never intentionally say anything to disrespect her and that community," he wrote. "Despite intention, phrase was inappropriate in this context."

Yet therein lies the problem: In grappling with an issue that has riven our nation for centuries, we continue to focus on what matters least -- catching human beings in the act of fallibility, despite intent.

Let me be blunt. I am a racist. Not by the dictionary definition -- I feel no hate nor superiority toward those of another skin color. Nor do I have any trouble comprehending the disparities to which people are subject. So why lay claim to such an inflammatory label? Because I am hopelessly, interminably aware of race. And I don't want to be.

If you haven't guessed, I'm white. Until I was an adult, I had scarce opportunity to interact with anyone of another skin color. That didn't shield me from racial differences, which I could see in the media and in the insular ugliness displayed by some within my circle of existence. But I was inspired by the ideal that people should be judged by the content of their character, even though it seemed increasingly quaint.

Like Bretos, I married a woman of Asian ancestry. She was born and raised in California, which defines her as much as does her Chinese ethnicity. She remembers being called a "chink" when she was growing up, though "not a lot." I asked her if it left a searing, lasting impression. "Searing, no," she said. "Lasting, yes."

It would be naive to say that such blatant racism has vanished, though it is not predominant today. Among the problems that do linger is an unevenness in perception and opportunity, perpetrated largely without intent.

This seems to be the target of the "Un-Fair Campaign" that is seeking, controversially, to raise racial awareness in Duluth. The controversy arises because of the campaign's focus on "unearned" white privilege, an emphasis that makes its intended audience less receptive, even if that audience detects an irony -- that the tables of prejudice have been turned.

Credit the campaign's organizers for launching a conversation. But we won't change racial disparity by shaming people for forces that are much older and bigger than they are.

We'll get better results by promoting agility -- to juggle the conflicting goals of being color-blind, culturally inclusive and inequity-aware -- and the willingness to bridge the chasm between collective and individual responsibility.

It's so much easier, isn't it, to talk about how ESPN slighted an Asian in the NBA.

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David Banks is the Star Tribune's assistant commentary editor.

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