Why Don’t We Care That There Are So Few Asian Basketball Players in the NBA?

At some point in a conversation about racial inequality, an anti-racist will have this question posed to them by a skeptic:

“There are so many black folks in the NBA. Why is the NBA is not seen as racist?”

Of course, it is manifestly true that black players dominate the National Basketball Association (NBA). Just look at the basketball court. I had difficulty finding hard data from an original source, but a reference from Wikipedia reports that the racial composition in 2015 was 74 percent Black, 23 percent White, 2 percent Latino, and 0.2 percent Asian-American.

I will focus on Asian-American in the NBA. They are only 0.2 percent of the NBA but are 5.6 percent of the total American population. There is a clear disparity. Also, I was personally excited by the splash that Asian-American point guard Jeremy Lin made in the NBA in 2012.

Given this dynamic, I will focus the question:

“There are so many black folks in the NBA — and so few Asian-Americans, why is the NBA not seen as racist?”

Photo by David Tran on Unsplash

This question is meant to push back against the notion that group disparities in society signify racism. Are we to believe, the question implies, that the NBA is discriminating against Asian-Americans? Is systemic racism preventing Asians from becoming All-Star point guards?

It is also a prelude to a different explanation. It is meant to open an intellectual space where the assertion can be made that the causes of disparities in the NBA are for reasons other than racism. Could it be that Asian-Americans do not invest time in cultivating their children’s basketball talents? This is a cultural explanation. Or, could it be that black people have, on average, the type of physiques that are more conducive to success in basketball? This is a less palatable but for many equally compelling biological explanation. Suppose one accepts that the disparities in the NBA are due to things other than racism. In that case, you can apply this logic to disparities in other areas, including college admissions, arrest rates, and employment in technology companies.

Intuitively, anti-racists find this question flawed. But it may be hard to articulate why. This essay is meant to aid in that articulation. The focus will not be on explaining why group disparities exist — that is a big topic. Instead, the focus will be on explaining why the NBA, with its evident racial disparities, is not something social justice activists see as an issue.

I believe that three components must be in place.

Perceptions of Wrongness

The first factor is perceptions of injustice or immorality. There has to be a sense that something is wrong with the pattern. For some, this wrongness could be about rights or governance (an injustice that needs to be corrected through policy). For others, this wrongness could be a feeling that mistreating people is wrong for humanistic reasons.

This sense of something being wrong is sometimes hard to identify. Nevertheless, when enough people across society perceive the disparity as wrong, then a foundation is in place for addressing the issue. People pay attention. They click the links and share the social media posts.

One of the primary reasons black Americans’ claims of racism are taken seriously is that when people evaluate the claim, they incorporate both the present claim and past instances of racism into their judgment. In other words, it is not only a present claim that black folk are discriminated against at Facebook and Google. It is also that we know they were discriminated against just a generation or two ago, to the point where they were, in effect, barred from any upper-level positions in large American corporations.

Context matters.

For better or worse, it is hard to generate a sense of wrongness about the lack of Asian-Americans in the NBA. It is all about the historical and sociological context within which the disparity occurs. The history of racism against African Americans in the United States shields them and any industry they dominate from criticism. In fact, in conversations about racism in the NBA, the focus is usually on the lack of black owners. Second, many Asian-American sub-populations’ relative success lowers the sense of urgency one may have about Asian-Americans in general.

This component is primarily about society at large. There is a second component that has to do with the group themselves.

Group Interest

There needs to be an interest from members of the racial group perceived as wronged. It is one thing for society at large to think there is a problem. It is another for those who are wronged to care about it.

Since the 1950s, black Americans have been at the vanguard of social justice movements meant to address racial injustices across various institutions. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, their lives were restricted so much by racism that they had no choice but to take notice and do something about it. During the Civil Rights Movement, they organized — with much help from whites — sit-ins, marches, and Freedom Rides. Today, they are at the forefront of movements to end police brutality, most notably with organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Color of Change.

My sense is that culturally, big-time American sports participation is not a priority for the Asian-American population in the United States. At the risk of regurgitating some stereotypes about Asian-American immigrants, most documented immigrants to the United States are coming for specific educational or economic opportunities, which will not include major professional American sports. 59 percent of the total Asian-American population and 73 percent of Asian-American adults were not born in the United States. We may see a shift over generations by the Asian population towards American leisure activities, but this is likely not the case right now.

Photo by Joshua Rodriguez on Unsplash

The point that Asian-Americans — and here we are talking about youth — are not investing the time needed to excel at professional basketball may point to some validity in some of the critiques of current discourses that “disparities do not mean racism.”

I agree partially. When we see disparities in a particular industry but no interest by the population on the wrong end of the disparity, then there is no need for concern. There may be some form of racism that has prevented that group from being interested or trying to enter into those sectors. But without vocal interest from members of that group, there is less reason to care.

But let us assume there is interest. A third component is needed.

Evidence

There has to be some indication that members of the group experienced some form of racism. The evidence can come in the form of academic research — where victims of racism are the object of study, or first-person accounts where the victims narrate their own experiences with racism. Racism is not abstract and theoretical. It contours people’s lives in concrete ways.

I did a brief scouring of social science databases to find research looking at racism towards Asian-Americans in sports. I did not see much oriented towards Asian-Americans in the United States. This is primarily because of a relative lack of interest, I believe.

As far as first-person accounts, there is Jeremy Lin. In 2012, Lin burst onto the NBA landscape with the New York Knicks. At that time, I was still an avid basketball fan and had just recently moved away from New York City. New York and it’s sports teams were still on my mind.

It was a fun time. Lin produced a series of magical performance for the Knickerbockers from out of nowhere. It was “Linsanity.”

But Lin had to navigate various forms of racism, as he tells ABC News:

“The biggest thing about me was no one had ever seen a player like me in terms of just my natural appearance…So coming out of college, everybody who criticized me was like, He is too weak and not fast enough and not athletic enough. And if you look at the combine stuff, me and John Wall [the number 1 draft pick in 2010] were tied for first in the fastest sprint. So my speed and the stats were there, but every time they would write about me, they would say he is not going to be fast enough, he is not going to be strong enough, he is not athletic enough.”

Lin also talked about the racial slur c — -k hurled at him, and “one fan at Georgetown shouted negative Asian-American stereotypes at him, such as ‘chicken fried rice’ and ‘beef lo mein’ and ‘beef and broccoli’ throughout the entire game.”

My guess is that if there were more Asian-American basketball players in the NBA, there would be more instances of the stereotyping and symbolic violence Lin endured.

Making Concrete What We Know Intuitively

Anti-racists, when trying to discuss racism in the United States, will eventually get this kind of question: “There are so many black folks in the NBA, why is the NBA is not seen as racist?”

I have had this question asked of me several times. At first, I intuitively knew that the disparities we see in the National Basketball Association where black folk are disproportionately represented, are different from a large Fortune 500 company where white folk are disproportionately represented. I knew that I shouldn’t worry about this as much — but could not articulate why.

This essay was written to make concrete what we know intuitively. It takes three factors, in my view, for people interested in social justice to turn their attention to a particular domain of life.

First, enough people must have a sense of “wrongness,” grounded in a historical and sociological context, that there is something immoral or unjust about the disparity. All disparities do not trigger in enough people this sense of wrongness.

Second, the group on the wrong end of the disparity must want to be involved in the industry. If there is no interest, then why bother? There are many niches of American society where we see one or more racial groups dominate — but there is no reason to advocate in instances where advocacy is not wanted or necessary.

And finally, there needs to be evidence. We must tie racism to real experiences, not abstract numerical disparities. There must be accounts of how much money has been lost because of job discrimination leading to more extended stays on the job market. There must be first-person narratives of the emotional pain felt when the target of a racial slur. There must be the stories of young children’s dreams being deferred because of stereotypes preventing them from participating in the game they love.

At the moment, these three components are not present when thinking about the disparities in the NBA. And therefore, anti-racists turn their attention elsewhere.

Rod is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University. https://www.youtube.com/c/roderickgraham

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