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The polite brand of anti-Asian bias

Then-Toronto Raptors' Jeremy Lin during the second half

Then-Toronto Raptors' Jeremy Lin during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks on March 28, 2019 in New York. Last week, Lin disclosed that he had been called an anti-Asian slur on the court. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

Last week, after pro basketball player Jeremy Lin disclosed that he had been called "coronavirus" on the court, the internet lit up with indignation. Social-media posts linked the slur against the former Knick and Net to the overall rise in racist attacks on Asian Americans, which have skyrocketed since the pandemic began.

"We stand in solidarity with the Asian American community and abhor the recent, repugnant acts of violence being committed against them," the National Basketball Players Association said in a statement. "This hatred has no place in our society."

I wish that were true. But anti-Asian sentiment is all around us, and not just in the recent spike of attacks. It’s in our stereotypes about Asians’ character and our jealousies of their success. It’s in the way we interact with them in our schools, offices, and public spaces.

In other words: it’s in you. And in me.

Consider college admissions, for example, where Asian Americans are often judged to have less attractive personalities than other applicants. Going back to 1990, a Department of Justice investigation of Harvard found that Asian American applicants were routinely described in evaluations like "quiet, and of course, wants to be a doctor." In other words: just another boring Asian kid.

Likewise, in his 2006 book, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden wrote that colleges generally saw Asians as less interesting. Explaining why Vanderbilt was putting more effort into recruiting Jewish candidates than Asians, a former administrator stated that "Asians are very good students, but they don’t provide the kind of intellectual environment that Jewish students provide."

There was a sad irony to that comment, because Jews in prior eras had been stigmatized in almost exactly the same terms. A Yale dean in 1918 called the typical Jewish student a "grind," one of the most common slurs against Asians today. Jews aced tests but supposedly lacked "character." So colleges began asking about athletics and other extracurricular activities, which became a convenient way to keep Jews out.

As recently as 2018, a lawsuit against Harvard revealed that Asians were less likely than white, Black or Latino candidates to receive the highest "personality" score. One Asian American applicant was described as a "hard worker," but with a caveat: "would she relax and have any fun?"

That’s a more polite form of prejudice than we’ve witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic, of course. Fueled by former President Donald Trump, who routinely called coronavirus the "China flu" or even "Kung Flu," Asian Americans have been spit and coughed upon, verbally harassed, and physically assaulted. In New York City alone, reported hate crimes against Asian Americans soared from just three in 2019 to 28 in 2020.

That’s truly awful, and it needs to stop. But so does the rampant stereotyping of Asian Americans across our society. How many times have you thought to yourself — or said out loud — that Asian Americans are dull grinds, devoid of charm and character? How often have you resented their academic and professional achievements?

A true class act, Jeremy Lin refused to identify the player who slurred him on the court. "What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?" Lin tweeted. "It doesn’t make my community safer or solve any of our long-term problems with racism." Pointing fingers is the easy part. Looking in the mirror is harder.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of "Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn."

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