Have we become so hypersensitive that a phrase in use for half a millennia must now be banished from the English lexicon? I’m speaking, of course, of the furor created last week when ESPN’s mobile site ran a story headlined “A Chink in the Armor.”
The idiom is commonly used to describe the vulnerability in an otherwise impenetrable defense. Its etymology goes back to the Middle Ages, when knights in battle wore suits of armor that covered their bodies head to foot. Opponents looked for small openings — chinks — through which they might thrust their swords or other weapons.
The ESPN story mentioned that the New York Knicks’ star point guard, Jeremy Lin, turned the ball over nine times in the team’s first loss with Lin as a starter — the most by one player in the NBA this season. But what made the ESPN headline so controversial was that Jeremy Lin is, in addition to being a terrific player, a Taiwanese American. The protests poured in as readers — and even more political activists and pundits — decided the headline was a racist pun on Lin’s ethnicity.
Really? I find it implausible given the context of the original story and what has come to light about the person responsible. The 28-year-old headline writer, Anthony Federico, appears to be an exemplary young man. Federico, whom ESPN has since fired over the headline incident, has spent his free time volunteering in orphanages in Haiti, visiting Alzheimer’s patients, working in soup kitchens and helping the homeless. He seems more like the Good Samaritan than a racist yahoo.
But let me be clear: Anti-Asian prejudice has been an ugly part of American history, a subject about which I have written extensively in the context of immigration. And unfortunately, discrimination against Asians hasn’t disappeared today, especially when it comes to college admissions.
Ironically, Jeremy Lin may well have suffered from a different form of discrimination. Despite his obvious athletic talents and high school record, no school offered him a basketball scholarship, and he ended up playing for Harvard.
Did schools pass on Lin because he was Asian? Possibly. Most high school basketball stars who played for state championship teams would have been offered a scholarship. But in Lin’s case, college coaches and scouts may have ignored him because of his ethnicity.
The question isn’t whether Asians are frequently the subjects of discrimination and prejudice, or even whether Lin’s race has been an obstacle in his battle to succeed in sports. The question is whether ESPN reacted properly to what was an innocent use of a commonly used idiom.
This isn’t the first time the use of an innocent word or phrase resulted in an unjust firing. In 1999, former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams fired a white assistant who used the word “niggardly” when referring to the city’s budget. The aide, budget director David Howard, was using the word properly and in the correct context; nonetheless, he was forced to resign (though he was ultimately re-hired) when community activists suggested — incorrectly — that the word was racially charged.
Part of what makes the ESPN incident so ridiculous is that for most young people — including, no doubt, the headline writer — race just isn’t the divisive, all-consuming preoccupation that political correctness assumes. Even Lin said of the incident, “I don’t even think that was intentional …”
We have become a much more tolerant society than in the past. Few Americans today do not have friends of different races. Americans increasingly work and live alongside those from other ethnic and racial backgrounds. And American families now frequently include members from different heritages.
In 2010, one in 15 new marriages included interracial couples, according to a recently released study by the Pew Foundation. Among these, Asians have the highest rates of inter-marriage — nearly 30 percent. And young people are particularly likely to approve of inter-marriage by a ratio of 2 to 1, in the Pew poll.
Maybe it’s time we lighten up — and no, that’s not a comment on race. There is still discrimination and prejudice out there, but the kind of race preoccupation that brought about this brouhaha makes race relations worse, and this brand of political correctness can ruin lives.