The simple and decent way to view Jeremy Lin and his sudden success is with a generous combination of hope and admiration, for he represents the victories all of us seek. At some point, we have all felt underestimated, all wondered if a supervisor, coach or editor would ever provide us an opportunity, and we knew we could succeed if only given that chance. Lin was underestimated, cut by two teams and nearly again by the Knicks before finally being given a real chance. Improbably, and on the biggest stage in the world in New York City, he is realizing what he always believed he could achieve on a basketball court.
He is an exceptional American story, intelligent enough to graduate from Harvard and benefit from the global doors its Ivy League prestige opens (our last four presidents have graduated from Harvard or Yale) and athletically gifted enough to play in the NBA. He is the dream of the immigrant: American-born of parents who emigrated from Taiwan with grandparents in China. He is a national and international symbol of what is possible in the United States, evidence of what generations of sweat and sacrifice and dreaming can produce.
Lin has been brilliant at what he can control. He has played inspiring basketball for the Knicks and has been forthright and gracious in interviews and undistracted by what is being said about him. What he cannot control is the uncomfortable soil his success has unearthed: ignorant thoughts, historical grievances, swelling ethnic pride, bitter racial resentments and the double standard that mix produces. All of which are a part of the ongoing conversation about race and fairness in this country, all of which are bigger than Jeremy Lin.
Over the past two weeks, one national columnist resurrected stereotypes about Asian male sexuality in a Twitter post, and was forced to apologize. The boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. reminded us of an old black grievance -- the national frenzy that seems to ensue when a non-black athlete succeeds at a black game, whether it's Mickey Mantle running fast or Larry Bird being the best player in a league that was 80 percent African-American. And ESPN suspended one employee and terminated another for using racially insensitive terminology on the air and in a mobile website headline.
The increasing volume of emails suggesting that Lin is being allowed to be targeted for racial slurs in a way that African-Americans are not underscores the deep and roiling tensions that continue to exist, continue to permeate our discourse, an American volcano waiting to erupt.
The tensions are the consequence of an original fault line in a country founded on an ideal of equality that did not exist in reality. The challenge still in America today is to undo yesterday's crushing contradictions: a free nation built on slavery, a land where all were created equal but only white men were allowed to own property and vote. The rest of the American story -- yours and mine and Jeremy Lin's -- is the effort to live up to the ideal. We're often successful, but that success never comes without great pain. As Mark Twain wrote in 1898, "Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned."
The African-American experience, because of slavery, is now and forever will be the template for the American contradiction as we move toward the free nation we strive to be, whether the milestones are Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action or others along the way. Each successive battle -- for women's rights, Latino rights, Asian rights, gay rights -- has followed the same template. The question of how to make an enslaved people whole, despite a world that now includes $10 million athletes, an African-American president, a Latina Supreme Court justice and gay congressmen, in many ways has still never been fully answered. The anger, whether from the people unwilling to engage in the conversation, from those who believe yesterday's problems have already been solved or from those who see each setback as proof that we haven't sufficiently grown, never seems to cool.
At issue, as always, is power: who has it, and who is using it and how. In college, my African-American studies professor at Temple University, Molefi Kete Asante, asked the class if it is possible to be racist without power. He asked if racist words and actions have any power without the accompanying ability to enslave or disenfranchise. The question applies to sexism as well. For example: It is one thing for a man to yell "Hey, baby" to a woman on the street, but quite another when that man is her boss. That power is the male burden. "N-----" or "ch---" are more than just bad words; they come with the baggage of a history of preventing people from buying property or voting or being allowed to attend good schools. That power of prevention has always been, in the American sense, the White Man's Burden.
Nevertheless, the answer to my professor's question, naturally, is yes. The concepts of power and simple ignorance -- the saying of dumb things -- are different; but in many ways, one is no less damaging than the other. Charles Barkley used to call the Wang Zhizhi, the first Chinese player in the NBA, "Wang Chung" on national broadcasts. Nobody said a word.
While it is true that Jeremy Lin has not overtly been denied equality, employment, the vote or the right to build a house in his desired neighborhood -- the issues that led to the Civil War and the civil rights movement -- our history includes those denials to Asian-Americans. And Lin has been unfairly reduced by the same ignorance, which perhaps played a part in why he was cut during earlier NBA tryouts. The perception of tolerance for racist remarks against Asian-Americans that would not be accepted in the case of African-Americans might help explain the anger, both that Lin has had his glorious moments threatened and that, in the eyes of some, the African-American community receives special treatment because it has a louder, more powerful and more public lobby.
But Lin is not an acceptable target, nor are Asian-Americans in general, nor is anyone. ESPN did not wink and nudge and laugh at the offensive headline on its mobile platform. The company recognized the mistake and responded very severely. Someone lost his job for that serious error in judgment.
While he soars and should be celebrated, Lin is the latest phenomenon that forces open our deepest cultural wounds. The anger is quick to rise. When he is lauded for his fundamentals and team play, the Mayweather argument hears it as resentment over how "black" basketball has become (as if Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan or Michael Jordan didn't play fundamentally sound basketball), over how the street has stolen the game, as another example of how America still tries to elevate every non-black hope.
Basketball is one of the few areas of American society where the culture is black -- not just on the court, but in style, in locker rooms, in how players talk to each other. Generally, anyone playing basketball at a high level must adapt to the African-American culture. Football is not that way, and anyone playing baseball must adhere to that game's rigid, old-school ways. Danny Ainge, general manager and president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, once told me he believes that having to assimilate to the black game -- actually having to become a cultural and racial minority -- with its transposed discrimination and diminishments is one reason that fewer white Americans are playing basketball. Few sports are as intensely personal as basketball, the team game played as five one-on-one matchups.
But being in a cultural position of power can lend itself to cruelty, and African-Americans in basketball have gotten away with easy racial slurs as part of the game. Any white or non-black player knows this. Who's got the white boy? is a common phrase on the pickup court.
All of it is wrong. And just because Lin is not being prevented from playing basketball, in the way that African-Americans and women were kept from opportunities in this country, doesn't mean the words aren't harmful. They are. And they suggest a certain tone deafness to a changing America.
Over the coming years, the presence of Asian or Asian-American basketball players as a phenomenon -- the non-black hope -- will recede, as surely as seeing Jarome Iginla, Mike Grier or PK Subban on skates has, or Eminem holding a microphone or Tiger Woods a 3-iron. Lin represents perhaps the first step toward "unlearning" what we think we know about the place of the Asian-American male. There are countless success stories and prominent stars like Michael Chang and Michelle Wie in sports and Jennifer Tilly in Hollywood, but there has not yet been a transcendent Asian-American crossover athlete or actor or pop star in the category of a Michael Jordan or George Clooney.
There have been bigger Asian stars in sports, such as Ichiro Suzuki and Yao Ming -- and in Hollywood, Jackie Chan and Jet Li -- but they've been cultural imports. America is still waiting for an Asian-American leading man, on the field or on the screen, one to be taken seriously and completely, not as a caricature.
Little of this conversation has anything to do with Jeremy Lin specifically. But his emergence with the Knicks provides the lens for us to look at ourselves again, to look at what we are and who we are. It's unfortunate when we don't like what we see.
Of course, there is good news. We have an opportunity again to be better. Jeremy Lin is a compelling basketball figure doing his job, making the most of his opportunity. The question, as it has always been, is this: What will we do with our opportunity, the one he's giving us?
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.