Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise in sports and popular culture has been incredible as the Harvard alum-turned-New York Knicks point guard was satirized on “Saturday Night Live” while appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated during the same week. Indeed, “Linsanity” has spawned tremendous discussion about race and ethnicity in professional sports, much of it poorly informed. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin’s historical importance is how he embodies a long American tradition of sports serving as an avenue of assimilation for recent immigrant groups.
Though there was a significant Irish and German immigration in the mid-19th century, the largest wave of newcomers came to the U.S. from eastern and southern Europe between 1882 and 1924. Unlike previous immigrants, who had mostly come from northwestern Europe, these new arrivals hailed from Italy, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The background of these immigrants, many whom entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, spawned a fierce debate about the nature of American identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many Americans believed eastern and southern Europeans weakened the country because they were racially inferior; others were concerned that a large percentage of them were Catholic and Jewish. Labor unions feared they would lower wages for American workers. As a result, some native-stock Americans formed organizations to halt the wave and after many years of lobbying, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which sharply curtailed immigration from eastern and southern Europe by creating small quotas for newcomers from those nations
By the 1930s, first-generation sports heroes became symbols of pride for these immigrant communities, smoothing their entrance into the American mainstream. The Jewish-American baseball player Hank Greenberg became a star first baseman for the Detroit Tigers during the Great Depression. With the backdrop of Hitler’s rise in Europe and growing American anti-Semitism, Greenberg won two American League Most Valuable Player awards and challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938. In the same era, the Italian-American Joe DiMaggio emerged as the successor to Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the star of the New York Yankees, setting a major league record by hitting in 56 consecutive games in 1941. Given their outsider status, Jews and Italians took particular pride in the achievements of Greenberg and DiMaggio. Furthermore, the baseball stars’ accomplishments earned them respect among the older American population, contributing to the weakening of the anti-Semitic and anti-Italian sentiment that remained virulent in the 1930s United States.
With the military service of first and second-generation Ellis Island immigrants in World War II, nativist sentiment began to decline. The soldiers returned home and participated in the economic boom of the 1950s, moving out of the old urban neighborhoods and into the suburbs, where ethnic identity was not as visible. Furthermore, the civil rights movement undermined the scientific racism that had served as the basis for the restrictions of 1924. In 1965, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, which removed the quotas that had limited immigration from eastern and southern Europe. For a number of reasons, legislators believed that they were simply ending an antiquated system and did not think the change would precipitate renewed migration to the United States.
They were wrong. Hart-Celler facilitated a new wave of immigrants came from Latin America and Asia in the last third of the 20th century, again reshaping the nation’s demography. Today, the percentage of Americans born outside of the United States is the highest it has been since 1920. As we have seen in recent years, this migration has renewed the early 20th century debates about “Who is an American?”
Like the Ellis Island wave, many first-generation immigrants attained prominence in sports. In particular, Hispanic Americans have reached tremendous heights in baseball, growing from a little over ten percent of major league players in the early 1990s to over a quarter by the early 21th century. The number of all-star Latino players is simply too long to list, though Sammy Sosa earned the greatest fame because of his duel with Mark McGwire for Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998 (though the two of them have had some difficulties since, as you may have heard).
Lin is certainly not the first Asian-American sports star. The Chinese-American tennis player Michael Chang, who was overshadowed by contemporaries like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in the 1990s, comes to mind. Still, Lin’s success is comparable to Greenberg’s in that it also breaks down the stereotype than an ethnic group known for excellence in academic pursuits can’t do the same in athletics. Though he has only played a few weeks in the NBA, “Linsanity” has gone a long way to accomplishing this end.
Only time will tell if Lin can sustain his current level of play. The history of sports is littered with phenoms who have started strong and then disappeared almost as quickly. Whatever the end result, his status as an ambassador for a recent immigrant group is part of a long American pattern.