"Chink in the Armor," and How to Think About Race Relations

Dear Korean,

As a basketball fan, I am sure you are aware of the Jeremy Lin story that made NBA and the New York Knicks, in particular, relevant again. And perhaps you are also aware of the controversial headline at ESPN’s mobile website that had gotten the editor/writer responsible for the headline fired. The dismissed employee has apologized and stated that it was an honest mistake and he had no intention of being funny or punny. I read many of the comments from users that claim that they weren’t even aware of racial connotation until it became an issue. I don’t know if the writer is telling the truth or not, but if he was, this would imply that he saw Lin as just another person, not another race. In effect, he was color-bind. 

Isn’t this what minorities strive for, equality irrespective of race? Let’s consider the situation: the previously floundering basketball team finds a new hero and the new hero not only brings back the team but made it appear almost invincible then amid the feeling of this invincibility, the team suffers a loss. The phrase, a chink in the armor, seems to be perfect for describing this situation. If the hero was not Asian, then the writer would still be happily employed. Who’s the racist in this situation: the people who got offended by the title or the writer who made an unfortunate choice of words (giving him the benefit of the doubt about his intent)? 


Nobody knows for certain how Jeremy Lin, the basketball player, will pan out. He may end up being an Asian American Kevin Johnson (49% FG percentage, 18 points per game, 9 assists per game,) make multiple All-Star Games and have an outside shot at being inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame. (This is the probably the most optimistic scenario that is still within the realm of reality.) He may end up being a flash in the pan -- no shortage of those in the NBA -- like, say, Tony Delk, who scored 53 points in one game but otherwise had an unremarkable career as a bench player.

Jeremy Lin in Harvard - Boston College game.
But Jeremy Lin, the cultural phenomenon, has probably reached its zenith already. America has already come face-to-face with the many conundra that Jeremy Lin posed:  How is America to handle a mainstream Asian American star? How is America to handle a prominent Asian American that rigorously fits (Harvard education, Tiger Parent,) yet completely defies popular images of Asian Americans (athleticism, masculinity)? Even if Lin goes onto have a long and highly decorated NBA career, it would merely serve as a reminder of the fact that, once upon a time, his mere presence alone forced Americans to reflect on how they must deal with Asian Americans.

The question of racism involving Asian Americans is a tricky one for a country that is accustomed to looking at the issue of racism through the lens of the African American experience. R's question is difficult because "chink" is not the same as "n-----". Often when Asian American race relations becomes an issue, the habits developed in the African American experience are shoehorned into the Asian American issue. The uproar over ESPN's "Chink in the Armor" headline has an element of that as well -- n-word is bad, and therefore so is the c-word. Yet those two are plainly not the same: there is no such thing as a benign use of the n-word, but the word "chink" has a benign use in a common expression. And as R noted, in his apology, the ESPN headline writer makes a convincing case that he intended to use the word in a benign manner.

When a variation on a theme poses an unfamiliar challenge, it is often helpful to return to the fundamental principles. Race relations involving Asian Americans present new challenges that did not exist in race relations involving African Americans. Those new challenges are more easily met if we have a basic framework in our mind that answers the most fundamental question -- what makes something racist? So here, the Korean will present one possible framework of dealing with that question.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Here is an amusing story from one of the Korean's friends, who is from Louisiana:
"The father of my ex-girlfriend was a rare breed -- a real deal racist. I'm not talking about someone who has a lapse in judgment and says the wrong thing from time to time. He genuinely believed that black people were inferior to white people. But whenever a black person happened to cross him, he would never yell, "you damn n-----!" Instead, he would yell:  "You damn Democrat!" That way, nobody would accuse him of being racist."
This anecdote shows the ultimate vacuity of what may called the "magic word" approach to racism -- the idea that as long as a person does not say certain words, the person's record as to racism is unapproachable. Regardless of the precise word uttered -- either "n-----" or "Democrat" -- the man described in the Korean's friend's story remains just as virulently racist. 

From this, we can glean what the Korean would consider the "first principle" of racism. What makes something racist? It is the racist intent that makes something racist. For the man in the story above, the words "n-----" and "Democrat" serve the same function:  to express his racist disdain toward African Americans. The precise vehicle by which the man delivered the racist intent does not matter. What matters is the intent delivered in those vehicles.

This first principle, in turn, presents two challenges. First challenge is:  short of mind-reading, how are we to discern intent? Answer: we infer intent from the visible signs of intent. 

In this area, criminal law provides a helpful guidance. In most "classic" crimes, criminal law always has two requirements for a guilty verdict:  a guilty act, and a guilty mind. For example, a crime of larceny requires the guilty act of taking what is not yours, and the guilty mind that knows that what you took was not yours. If you only wanted to take something that was not yours but did not carry out that desire into action, you are not guilty of larceny. (In other words, thinking "I really want to steal that umbrella" without actually committing the act of stealing is not larceny) Similarly, if you took something that was not yours, but did so because you sincerely believed that it was yours, you are not guilty of larceny. (That is, if you took someone else's umbrella because you genuinely thought that umbrella was yours, your taking is not a larceny.)

Critics who believe "racism" is an overused charge often argue that it is not possible to discern people's intent. Not so -- if that were the case, we could not have criminal trials, in which the jury is asked to determine the defendant's guilty intent. Based on a person's words and deeds, it is entirely possible to infer intent by listening to people and looking at the facts and circumstances surrounding the event. Let's go back to the umbrella example, and suppose we are facing a defendant who took an umbrella, but swears that she thought the umbrella was hers. We can look at a number of external factors to figure out if she is lying. For example: what does her umbrella look like, and what does the taken umbrella look like? How similar are the two umbrellas? How does the defendant describe her own umbrella? Where was the umbrella taken from? (A common umbrella holder in a restaurant? In a crowded house party? From an apartment hallway shared with neighbors?) Was it raining outside, thereby supplying the defendant with the motive to steal an umbrella? Did she in fact have her own umbrella there?

Of course, these questions will not be enough to infer every last nook and cranny of the person's mind -- doing so would truly take a mind-reader. This limitation should make us humble and cautious about making judgments. Before we attempt to infer intent, we must make sure that we looked at all the facts and we heard from all relevant people involved. Even after we infer intent, we must be open to possibility that we made an error, and must stand ready to be generous with our forgiveness. Nevertheless, if we are as serious about combating racism as we are about combating crimes, we must give our best attempt at inferring the intent.

(Aside:  This difficulty of inferring intent probably contributes to the temptation of using the "magic words" approach instead. But the "magic words" approach illegitimatizes, and dilutes the strength of, the charge of racism. The criminal law, in fact, provides another helpful example showing the consequences of abdicating the search for intent. During the War on Drugs, Congress created a number of crimes that levied harsh punishments with no burden on the prosecution to prove intent. These are the laws that provide, for example, that possession of 50 grams of crack cocaine comes with the minimum of 10 years in prison, regardless of the state of mind holding the crack. The result was an overbroad enforcement that completely undermined the legitimacy of criminal law among those who were affected by the enforcement -- not unlike the way in which the charge of racism is overused and therefore its legitimacy is undermined among some white people, who are the most likely targets of the charge.)

If we accept that racist intent is what makes something racist, we run into the second challenge -- that is:  how do we correct the behaviors of people who may not have racial animus, but who simply do not care? If a racist intent is what makes something racist, what do we do with people who do not form a concretely racist intent?

This challenge, however, is a mistake -- specifically, it is a mistake of confusing "intent" and "intentional." Here is another area in which referring to criminal law is helpful. Recognizing the fact that a guilty mind may have different levels of evil, criminal law provides a graduated scale of intent. "Intentional" is a part of that scale, but is not the only part of the scale.

Suppose the driver A runs over the pedestrian B, and B dies. In all of the following scenarios, the act (A running over B with a car) and the result (B's death) remain the same. But the legal consequences for A depend greatly on the level of A's intent. In American law (just to use a familiar example,) there would be largely four levels of gauging A's intent.

It is possible that A intentionally killed B. Because A hated B, A hatched a plan to kill B by running him over with her car. A shows up to a crosswalk where B crosses every night as he leaves from work, and mows B down. This would be considered an intentional homicide, and would generally come with 25 years to life in prison. It is possible that A intended to injure B, but ended up killing him. This usually comes with 15 years in prison. In these two scenarios, the level of intent is "intentional."

However, more importantly for our purpose here, A cannot escape punishment even if she held no concrete intention to specifically harm B. It is possible that A recklessly killed B. For example, because A was having a bad day, A was driving like a maniac, swerving around and running red lights, without thinking about the fact that she could hurt somebody. A never meant to hurt anyone -- in other words, A's actions were not intentional. But the fact that her actions were not intentional does not mean she did not have the requisite intent to establish criminal liability. The intent of recklessness, which results in death, still comes with a prison term of around 8 to 10 years in most cases.

There is an even lower level of intent than recklessness. It is possible that A negligently killed B. For example, A could have been driving perfectly safely in her entire time of driving. But just as she approached the crosswalk that B was crossing, A's cell phone rang. A glances down toward her pocket as she is taking the phone out of it. That split second was enough for A's car to run over B, who was crossing the street. In this scenario, A's intent was arguably impeccable. Unlike in the recklessness scenario, A generally cared about people's safety. A's action was arguably an honest mistake of a kind that could happen to just about any person on any given day. Even so, A is potentially looking at up to 2 to 5 years in prison.

For our purpose of developing a framework to think about racism, the intent of negligence is particularly important. After all, in this day and age, it is relatively rare to find someone who is intentionally racist. (Please note the use of the word "intentionally" as a term of art, rather than as its dictionary definition.) What kind of intent is "negligent"? Here is a legal definition of a negligent intent:  a state of mind that leads to a failure of exercising a reasonable level of care that a person of ordinary prudence would have exercised. Importantly, the definition of "reasonable level of care" is set regardless of who you are, and what situation you are in. In the last scenario, A could have been waiting for a very important phone call -- the result of her father's life-threatening surgery, for example. But that does not matter; when you are driving, "reasonable level of care" requires that you keep your eyes on the road.

That last part is very important. Negligent intent covers even those who have no ill will at all, and forces them to meet a certain standard set by the law. Because people who do form concrete ill will are more dangerous and blameworthy, they are punished more severely than negligent people are. However, that does not mean that negligent people can avoid punishment entirely. In a society where a person is interacting with a lot of other persons, there must be some basic rule that everyone must follow, such that injuries do not occur.

Having a clear understanding of negligent intent is important because negligence is an aspirational standard. Negligence is the standard that says "you are supposed to know this." By setting the standard of what people are supposed to know, it changes the behaviors of the people who wish no harm.

*                 *                *

Keeping in mind different levels of intent, how could one answer R's question?

Here is how the Korean would answer. "Chink" is about as offensive a word one could throw at an Asian American. The Korean is willing to believe that the ESPN headline writer was unaware of that. But the writer was negligent. He is an educated person, writing a headline that would reach millions of Americans. The writer had time to think about his word choices. He should have known that, in describing the most prominent Asian American athlete at the moment, there is ample room for misunderstanding if the word "chink" appeared in the headline. One could hardly imagine that, to describe a great defensive game in basketball, ESPN would choose a headline that stated: "A Niggardly Effort". Although the word "niggardly" means "thrifty" and has absolutely no etymological connection to the n-word, a network like ESPN that reaches a huge audience should know the possibility of misunderstanding.

That a lot of people did not know that "chink" was an offensive word (indeed, the most offensive word for Asian Americans) does not make the ESPN headline writer any more reasonable. Rather, it only reflects the pathetic state of affairs when it comes to how mainstream America deals with Asian Americans. As Jay Kang put it, America has largely turned a blind eye to racism against Asian Americans. It is not too much to ask people to know the most offensive term denoting Asian Americans. The ESPN headline writer was being racist. He should have known.

This conclusion, however, must be tempered by the following considerations. Screaming "racism is racism" is intellectually stupid. As there are intentional homicide and negligent homicide warranting different levels of punishment, there are different levels of racism that deserve different levels of blame. There were worse things that the writer could have done; it is not as if the writer joined the KKK. One can reasonably argue that the punishment levied on the writer -- i.e. loss of his job -- was too harsh. (The Korean would be inclined to agree with that. 30-day suspension without pay might have been more appropriate.) Any condemnation of the writer himself must be made cautiously, keeping in mind the explosive power that the accusation of racism has in contemporary America. Just as much as we urge people to carefully consider racism in expanding number of situations, we must be ready to undergo an equally careful analysis before exposing people to harsh consequences.

While not avoiding judgment, let us be generous with it. This is new for a lot of people, and they made mistakes. But they are catching on. The best example of that comes from one of the Korean's favorite sports writers, ESPN's J.A. Adande. His column on the world that Jeremy Lin changed is worth quoting at length:
At the Lakers-Knicks game, I was teasing a colleague about his exceptionally wrinkled suit pants. It looked as if he had slept in them, then somersaulted down the street to Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, Lin was having his way with the Lakers, scoring or assisting on seemingly every point. I was about to joke on Twitter that the only way Lin could be more impressive would be if he got the wrinkles out of those pants.

I decided against it because it would have been too inside, a joke lost on just about everyone not sitting next to me. It wasn't until later that I realized someone could easily have misinterpreted the joke, believing I was playing off the stereotype of Asian dry cleaners. That wasn't a part of my initial thought process. I would have made the same joke about Kobe Bryant or any other star of the night. But Lin brought the possibility of a pejorative into play.

The rules have changed. The lesson is to exercise greater caution, to consider all the ramifications of what we say. It's not too much to ask. It will lead to smarter conversations. And if that's the place to which Jeremy Lin has brought us, it's another way his impact resonates far beyond Madison Square Garden.
Jeremy Lin, race and lessons learned [ESPN]

The Korean is hopeful that most people will come to learn the new rules, as Adande did, without begrudging having to do so. Do not shrink of calling out racism, but give people time and careful thoughts.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.