February 16, 2012

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

I’m an Ivy League graduate and a crazed basketball fan. That gives me two very good reasons to celebrate the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin, the Harvard-educated point guard who has brought the New York Knicks back to life.

But I’m also a university professor. So I’m troubled by the much-heard refrain that Lin — whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants — has “overcome the Asian stereotype.” In the popular mind, this story goes, Asian Americans are quiet, studious and really good at math. By scoring 20 or more points in each of his first six NBA starts, including 38 against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Lin supposedly dealt a decisive blow against an insidious ethnic caricature.

But isn’t that stereotype — especially the part about studying hard — a very good model to follow? Why should anyone want or need to “overcome” it?

Here’s one sad answer: In our college admissions process, especially, we punish Asian Americans who hew too closely to the stereotype. Rather than rewarding students for their individual effort and achievement, we effectively penalize them for doing so well as a group.

In fact, the Education Department is currently investigating a complaint against Harvard — Jeremy Lin’s alma mater — for allegedly discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions. The department is also looking at Princeton, where a faculty member’s own research has shown that Asian Americans need SAT scores about 140 points higher than white students’ — when everything else is equal — to have the same chance of getting into an elite college.

Harvard and Princeton officials deny any overt discrimination, of course. “Our review of every applicant’s file is highly individualized and holistic,” a Harvard spokesman told Bloomberg News this month, “as we give serious consideration to all the information we receive and all the ways in which the candidate might contribute to our vibrant educational environment and community.”

Translated: It’s not sufficient to earn near-perfect grades and test scores, or to excel at a musical instrument, or to win a science-fair contest. Asian American applicants do all those things, in droves. But our elite universities don’t want too much of a good thing, if it all comes from the same racial group.

The Education Department also investigated Harvard’s admission of Asian American applicants in 1990. It found then that university officials routinely described these applicants as “quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers.” Admissions officials also had a hard time ranking one Asian American over another. One complained that an applicant’s credentials “seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” A second Harvard admissions officer sounded equally frustrated. “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” the officer wrote of one Asian American applicant.

The 1990 probe determined that Harvard admitted 13.2 percent of its Asian American applicants and 17.4 percent of whites, even though the Asians had better grades and scores. But the investigation concluded that the university’s preference for athletes and the children of alumni — not racial discrimination per se — accounted for the gap.

Asian Americans are underrepresented in both of those categories. Like Jeremy Lin, many Asian American applicants are first- or second-generation immigrants. They can’t rely on Daddy’s résumé — or his charitable donations to his college — to get them in.

That’s one reason why their parents encourage hitting the books instead of the courts. In 2009, when Lin was a senior at Harvard, he was one of just 18 Asian Americans playing NCAA Division I men’s basketball. Opposing players hissed slurs at him, asking if he was missing orchestra practice or telling him to “open up” his “slanty” eyes.

Although Lin led his California high school team to a state championship, no big-time NCAA program offered him a basketball scholarship. And as everyone knows now, two NBA teams cut him before the Knicks picked him up.

So we should congratulate Lin for overturning one stereotype: that Asian men can’t excel at sports. But let’s not forget that he was quite a studious fellow, too, earning a 4.2 grade-point average in high school and a perfect score on his SAT subject test in math. He graduated from Harvard with a 3.1 GPA in economics, one of the most demanding majors.

In that sense, Jeremy Lin didn’t overcome an ethnic stereotype; he confirmed it.

Yet the more we glorify Lin for breaking the typical mold, the more we denigrate the hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans who study hard and succeed. If you’re Asian, our society says, excelling at school simply isn’t good enough. And that’s what I call Linsanity.