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Why Jeremy Lin's race matters

By Ling Woo Liu, Special to CNN
February 14, 2012 -- Updated 1036 GMT (1836 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China -- and connections to it -- have been used to stoke fear in U.S. election, Liu writes
  • Two deaths have spurred Asian American lawmakers to demand hearings on hazing in military
  • Against all of this, Jeremy Lin has vaulted himself to stardom, Liu writes
  • He is the NBA's first U.S.-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent

Editor's note: Ling Woo Liu is the director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, which helped pass California's Fred Korematsu Day, the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. She is a former reporter and video producer for TIME, CNN's sister publication, in Hong Kong.

(CNN) -- A week ago, on feel-good Super Bowl Sunday, TV viewers in the U.S. state of Michigan were subjected to a racist campaign ad sponsored by former Representative and now-Senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra. The ad, which suggests that his opponent, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, spends too much government money, shows an Asian woman riding a bicycle in a landscape of rice paddies. "Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs," says the native Californian actress in a mock Chinese accent while addressing "Debbie Spend-It-Now." Hoekstra also appears, saying at the end, "I approve this message."

Public condemnation ensued, with demands for an apology and the ad's removal.

It's not the first time that China, or any connections to China, have been used to stoke fear this U.S. election season. In early January, a group in support of Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul released a campaign ad slamming then-candidate Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China. The "China Jon" ad showed Huntsman speaking Chinese and wearing a red tikka on his forehead (a sacred mark associated with Hinduism) and questioned his adoption of girls from China and India. "Jon Huntsman: American Values?" the ad asks, calling him "The Manchurian candidate," "Weak on China?" with ostensibly Chinese music in the background.

Paul denounced the ad, telling CNN he had no control over his supporters' actions.

Ling Woo Liu
Ling Woo Liu

Then on Thursday, a U.S. Marine sergeant was found not guilty of hazing Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, who committed suicide last April in Afghanistan. A Marine Corps report revealed that Lew had been beaten by his superiors with sand poured in his mouth for falling asleep while on duty. Another Marine was sentenced to 30 days in jail and demoted; a third faces court-martial over the death. Lew's case along with that of Pvt. Danny Chen, who was found dead in October from an apparent suicide, have spurred Asian American members of Congress to demand hearings on hazing in the military.

Chen, the only Chinese American soldier in his unit in Afghanistan, was called "gook," "chink" and "dragon lady," forced to crawl on gravel while fellow troops threw rocks at him, and made to shout instructions in Chinese to fellow troops (no one else in his unit spoke Chinese). The Asian American civil rights group OCA has met with Pentagon officials to demand better treatment of Asians in the military.

Against all of this, Jeremy Lin, a Harvard grad and the NBA's first U.S.-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, has vaulted himself to stardom. On Saturday, Lin led the Knicks to their fifth straight victory. His 109 points in his first four starts this past week have surpassed Allen Iverson's to become the most by any player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.

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For those who've been following the campaign ad controversies as well as the Lew and Chen cases, Lin's meteoric rise has been a much-needed sign of hope. But the conversations on Facebook, in bars and living rooms are as diverse as the Asian American community itself. Some are pumped up about seeing an Asian face next to Kobe Bryant's or moved by Lin's public devotion to Christianity. Others are analyzing Lin's academic and athletic prowess and thinking about the role model he'll be for their children.

Jeremy Lin: The NBA's breath of fresh air

Lin himself has been candid about the racism he's encountered along the way. "It's a sport for white and black people," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. "You don't get respect for being an Asian-American basketball player in the U.S. ... I hear everything. 'Go back to China. Orchestra is on the other side of campus. Open up your eyes.'"

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Unfortunately, success doesn't stamp out racism. Minutes after Lin's breathtaking career-high 38-point performance against the LA Lakers Friday night, FoxSports.com national columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted "Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight." After condemnation by the Asian American Journalists Association, he tweeted an apology, acknowledging that he had "debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I'm truly sorry."

Almost exactly a decade ago, some of us remember similar knocks against a certain 7'6" new kid on the block. USA Today ran a column by Jon Saraceno in 2002 saying, "the [Rockets] franchise could wind up with egg foo yong all over its face" and "What happens the first time a bona fide NBA strongman, say Shaquille O'Neal, whacks [Yao Ming] in the chopsticks?"

Just this past week, a Manchester United fan, Howard Hobson, was banned from matches for three years and fined 200 pounds (US $315) for cursing and making monkey sounds at Stoke City's Kenwyne Jones, who is from Trinidad.

To be fair, Lin and other minority athletes today have not been subjected to the level of racism that African American sports pioneers faced before them. Jesse Owens was a great American athlete who prevailed despite being born into an officially and unofficially racist society. The African American track star, who had to live in off-campus segregated housing at Ohio State University, went on to win four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany, much to the dismay of Adolf Hitler.

Three-quarters of a century later, there are those who want to leave race out of the equation altogether and embrace minority athletes, actors and other pioneers for their skills alone rather than their skin color. "Many people want the debate to end," says Laurens Grant, the director and producer of "Jesse Owens," a forthcoming PBS documentary. "But the debate isn't settled. It won't end until there's more opportunity."

Many of us have been lucky enough to escape the burn of bullying and racism. We might have walked through our schoolyards without hearing taunts from fellow students. We might have gotten the promotions we deserved at work. Our perfect American English may have averted giggles and impatience. We may have served in the armed forces without being treated any differently from fellow troops. And we might have been lucky enough to escape the perpetrators of hate crimes, like the laid-off Detroit autoworkers who in 1982 beat Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, to death with a baseball bat after his bachelor party because they were bitter about competition from Japanese carmakers.

Such xenophobic sentiment gets eerily stirred up by ads like the ones attacking Sen. Stabenow and Jon Huntsman.

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ling Woo Liu.

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