Media "Linsanity" raises question: Why haven't we learned from past fights over race portrayals?
There's a connection linking the New York Post's unfortunate headline last week celebrating surprise New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin — "Amasian!" — and the worst character of color on CBS' new hit sitcom, 2 Broke Girls.
The problem, quite simply, is a failure to learn from history.
Imagine a newspaper heralding a star black player as "Negro-tastic!"
But the Post somehow had no problem boiling down an insulting assumption about Lin — amazement that an Asian American actually plays basketball well — into a single, brutish headline. (Nevermind ESPN's unfortunate headline on its mobile sites after Friday's Knicks game, "Chink in the Armor." The headline writer was fired over the weekend and now says it was just a horrible mistake).
Similarly, CBS presents a walking stereotype each week in Han Lee, the socially awkward, heavily accented Korean immigrant who owns the diner where the lead characters work in 2 Broke Girls.
Lee speaks in a thick patios, fretting over why his employees don't friend him on Facebook. In too many ways, he is the embodiment of all the hurtful stereotypes about Asian men — so awful that TV critics aggressively challenged executive producer and co-creator Michael Patrick King at a press conference in January.
But 2 Broke Girls also is part of CBS' popular Monday night comedy lineup, and one of the highest-rated new shows of the 2011-12 season.
It's obvious: Media haven't learned enough from the fights over stereotyping of black people.
The activism against hurtful images of black people on television reaches back to the 1950s, when CBS first aired a TV comedy based on the radio show Amos 'n' Andy; a horribly stereotypical comedy about two black men ladled with thick accents and dim-witted behavior.
While some found the show entertaining, the NAACP sought a court injunction to stop its airing and targeted its sponsors for protest. CBS dropped the show two seasons later.
More than 40 years later, in 1999, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People stepped in again, protesting so loudly about a new slate of TV shows without a single character of color, that all the major television networks hired executives to oversee their diversity efforts.
The goal, in these cases, isn't to protect hurt feelings; it's to keep an institution as powerful as network television from becoming a haven for attitudes that enable racism.
Today, Asian and Hispanic characters don't get the same attention.
In the pilot episode of its awful cross-dressing comedy Work It, ABC aired a line where a Latino character joked about a landing a pharmaceutical sales job: "I'm Puerto Rican. I'll be great at selling drugs."
The line sparked protests, but was overshadowed by complaints from the transgendered community about the humor directed at men who dress like women.
Another new CBS comedy about a Caucasian man who marries into a Mexican family, Rob, debuted last month featuring jokes about illegal aliens and a Latino relative (in the country illegally, of course) who tries to charm the white man into giving him $7,200.
It's hard to imagine that producers might not have thought twice about these lines if the characters were black.
Lin's surprise success as an underappreciated player also has led to a flood of questionable coverage and graphics. The MSG network broadcast an image of the player's head between two halves of a broken fortune cookie, above a slip of paper reading, "the Knicks good fortune."
And Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock sent a message on Twitter based on a joke about the stereotype of Asian men lacking sexual endowments. Whitlock, an acerbic columnist known for his in-your-face commentary, nevertheless apologized within days, later writing a column noting some Asians may feel basketball culture is hostile to them.
In its handbook, dubbed All American: How to Cover Asian America, the Asian American Journalists Association lists three important principles for getting coverage right: Dig harder. Make no assumptions. Don't give offense.
Say it again: Don't give offense.
"The maxim of American journalism is 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,' " reads one passage. "That does not in any way require ethnic insult. It is pointless. It annoys viewers and readers. And, after all, they are the ones who count."
Too often, it seems, we view the advances made by one group to conquer stereotypes in the public space as a singular event; a specific circumstance for a specific set of people.
A victory against stereotypes in media for one, should be a victory for all.
If we no longer tolerate insulting TV characters like the streetwise black pimp Rooster on the '70s cop show Baretta, then why should we endure an asexual, socially awkward Han Lee in 2012?