Andrew Yang and His Faith In Whiteness

Never make any politician your personal hero.

a month ago

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Never make any politician your personal hero. I was #yanggang up until Yang dropped out and considered myself a proponent of many of his ideas about the economy. I still agree with his main narrative, that we are headed towards economic disaster due to automation (which has been accelerated by the coronavirus crisis), which is why I have for the most part stayed silent about his previous gaffes. However, Yang’s most recent article is not just a silly MATH pin or a comment about how we have a lot of doctors (though he manages to fit those ideas into this trainwreck of a piece), it is a dangerous prescription for how Asian Americans should behave in order to fit into America, which ultimately translates into: How can we make ourselves the most palatable to “earn” our Americanness?

When I supported Yang, many Asian Americans squelched me or tried to dismiss conversations I would have with them when trying to just talk about his policies. Because of that, I had a theory: that much of the vitriol directed towards Yang during his campaign from Asian Americans were from Asian Americans activists who were salty that all their combined activism amounted to virtually nothing compared to the movement Yang was able to galvanize. And while I still think there’s an element of truth to that, I’m beginning to see the other side of the equation: as humans we naturally abhor the bad things we see in ourselves in other people, because we can identify exactly why the shit stinks. We are quicker to call out people similar to us making clear mistakes or errors because we’ve seen the same story play out countless times and we know where those mistakes lead.

I say all this to do the Eminem 8 Mile thing and come clean. I am probably the prototypical Andrew Yang supporter and who he would consider to be a model minority Asian American: I am unfortunately every Asian American stereotype under the sun. I come from an upper-middle class Korean American family in Westchester, NY, (only 30 minutes from where he grew up in Somers, where I also went to for track meets) with a father as a medical doctor, a sister who went to Harvard, and parents who were disappointed when I only got into Duke. I had a close friend who attended Phillips Exeter for high school and became a well known tech entrepreneur. Because of my various privileges, I was able to succeed at professional poker and make tons of money playing it during the poker boom in the early 2000s, while I also secured a high paying management consulting job post college. I’ve enjoyed living my adult life in two of the most affluent cities in America, and would by most accounts be considered an Asian American success story. And unfortunately, I’m also really fucking good at math.

In a sense, Yang is more than just another Asian guy to me: I looked up to him as almost family, a big brother figure because we shared nearly the exact same life story, complete with matching angsty looking yearbook photos. For many Asian Americans, he was our champion, the first time we actually felt like we were represented in American political discourse. We saw all of the great things he was bringing to the table: his practicality, his solutions based approach and his  apparent humility and open-mindedness as someone who admittedly was inexperienced at all this. He was an easy person to root for, the underdog we all saw ourselves as Asian Americans in this country, ready to fix all of America’s problems, show them how an Asian American can get the job done, where all these old white men have failed. And when he started his campaign, I became intrigued, from buying his book, donating to his campaign, had many conversations and debates with friends about his political views, and even bought one of those boomer styled MATH hats. It was the first time I truly became politically engaged, because I felt truly seen, following his every campaign move and checking polling data religiously, and sounding the alarm bells every time NBC, CNBC or MSNBC and other mainstream liberal media sources were unfairly silencing, disparaging or otherwise dismissing Yang (including not getting his name correct on several occasions). I was a true Andrew Yang stan.

So one can imagine my chagrin when I first heard about his response to getting called a "chink" on a comedy podcast run by Shane Gillis. To Yang’s understanding of racism: Gillis just needs to learn more and saying racial slurs is just part of the process when one finds their comedic voice. Not only does Yang try to portray himself as the bigger man by not making stink about it, he also goes further and appeals to NBC, saying that he shouldn’t be fired for it. Yang, fairly or not, is now seen as someone by Americans as someone who speaks for all of us. So while he may have been personally fine with the comments, clearly many in the community had a problem not only with Gillis’s "chink" comments, but other disparaging comments about Chinatown and its elderly population, insinuating that we’re all dirty immigrants who don’t know anything about America. We see how those “harmless jokes” are currently manifesting into actual violence. What Yang doesn’t understand is that there are Asians who aren’t like us, who don’t fall into the model minority myth. Who don’t have enough privilege to live in less racist areas to simply “shake it off”. Who may live in neighborhoods where they say those very slurs that are just a joke with violent aggressive intent. Yang doesn’t understand that there exists a certain evil to racism that is beyond just simple “ignorance” of each other’s culture.

It was also clear from Gillis’ non-apology tweet and other content going forward that Gillis did not learn a single thing from the experience. He actually benefited from the notoriety of the entire affair, gaining support from fellow alt right edgelord “comedians,” where tired racist jokes aren’t censored, they’re demanded. Many Yang supporters I argued with declared that it was all part of the long game, for Yang to build a voting coalition first to gain momentum, and that he’d be much more aggressive on racist issues once he had a large enough platform. Eventually, I decided to bite the bullet, swallow my pride and get back on the Yang train, because none of the Democratic candidates really were talking about what I saw as the biggest existential threat of the nation. But I started to keep a closer eye on his campaign from that moment on, and that’s when my view of Yang began to unravel.

When I heard rumors that he was planning a NYC mayor run, I thought that would’ve been an excellent political move for him, given his New York roots and a chance to almost beta test his ideas, especially in a city where the most impoverished are Asian Americans. Instead, since dropping out, he has started a non-profit to support political candidates that push UBI forward, a questionable endeavor at best, joined CNN (a network that dismissed him) as a political commentator, and endorsed Joe Biden despite saying that he’d hold support for the candidate that either endorsed UBI or adopted a platform that was similar to his own. He even went so far as to backtrack on that decision, with this tweet:

Later, Yang even admits to breaking campaign laws by revealing that he was promised a position in Biden’s campaign on a podcast (at around 16:00):

Even when he does try to pivot from his original stances, he doesn’t commit. He tries to have his cake and eat it too, and voters see right through that kind of equivocation and the failure to stick to one’s own principles. The Democratic establishment (which involves all the major media arms sans Fox News) are content to bring Yang on as a commentator now that he’s no longer a political threat and he’s endorsing their guy. But especially with how transparent the media has been lately, it’s clear how the establishment sees him. They see him as an odd quirky Asian man with some neat ideas but they have essentially relegated him as a sideshow. It was painful for me to watch because I thought his actions were actually detrimental to his overall platform and that he was hurting his own momentum with every misstep.

It was clear to me upon closer examination that Yang operates from the same worldview that many other finance bros operate from: America is a post-racial society where all of the social ills stem from economic imbalances which can be corrected by, well, giving everyone $1000/month. He acknowledges that racism exists, but only in the form of fringe groups and extremists. Yang has a “Green Book” understanding of race, that only comically over the top manifestations of racism need to be addressed, instead of trying to tackle the more insidious nature of structural racism. Yang has taken so much care to try to not be associated with identity politics, as he likely saw it as counterproductive to building a coalition with white (former Trump) voters who don’t like being called racist or deplorable. And while his strategy was effective, he overcommitted with his piece in the Washington Post. He didn’t just lick the boot, he ate the whole goddamn thing.

Leading up to the op-ed, I petitioned Yang several times to talk about the anti-Asian racism that was happening. As the most prominent Asian American figure in America, his speaking out against anti Asian racism could go a long way: his platform includes many former Trump supporters who tend to live in areas where the racism will be particularly nastier than others. So when I first saw that he wrote something, my initial reaction was “finally.” Then my reaction turned to verifying that it was not in fact, an Onion article or an April Fools gag. As I read on, I decided that my support for Yang was finished. He would’ve done better had he never written anything at all.

Much has been written about the letter already that I want to focus on areas that haven’t been talked about as much.

“My place in this country felt assured. I have it better than the vast majority of Americans of any background. When comedian Shane Gillis slurred me by name, I did not think he deserved to lose his job. It barely registered when a teenager yelled “Chink” at me from the window of his car in New Hampshire a number of months ago. My only reaction was to think, “Well, I’m glad that neither of my sons was around because then I might have to explain to them what that word means.” — Andrew Yang

There’s a few things to unpack here. Yang claims that because he is privileged, he can take “level 1 racism” thrown his way and would in fact would be overreacting if he did respond negatively to said racism. This is a very simplistic childhood playground view of bullying, the misguided idea that you look strong when you allow people to disparage you without consequence. And while he may personally be shielded with his privilege, he doesn’t speak for the poor elderly who live in Chinatowns or Koreatowns who are being attacked by racists. The second part is also disturbing. The fact that he never had the race conversation or wants to have the race conversation with his sons means that he thinks that racism is just an inconvenience you can sweep under the rug, as long as you’re rich enough. Both of these downplay the very real struggle that many impoverished Asian Americans face in this country.

“I responded, “The truth is that people are wired to make attributions based on appearance, including race. The best thing that could happen for Asians would be to get this virus under control so it isn’t a problem anymore. Then any racism would likely fade.” This was weeks before “Chinese Virus” became a thing.” — Andrew Yang

Yang makes the argument here that humans are naturally wired to be racist. On the surface, it seems like an obvious and “correct” idea, but the insidious part of it is that it delegitimizes the concept of white supremacy and also implicitly makes the claim that non-white minorities can also take part in racism against whites. And while the second part of the statement is empirically true, that if COVID-19 were under control we’d experience a lot less racism, it does not mean that the racism would fade. It would simply recede until another event, whether it be a virus or economic anxiety, Sinophobic war hawking, caused it to resurface.

The worst part of his op-ed was the fact that as the most prominent Asian American, he was essentially victim blaming Asian Americans for being bullied, assaulted and attacked. A kindergartner would have greater sense to know that a bully doesn’t stop being aggressive when you show deference to them, it merely emboldens them. Not only that, his appeal to the Asian American community was essentially: “If we let people think that this hurts us, we’re letting them win. We have to rise above.” This idea is all part of Yang’s concerted strategy to build a unified “race-blind” coalition with calls for “Humanity Forward” platitudes, where in Yang’s view of American society the root cause of everyone’s unhappiness comes down to simple economic anxiety. That if the racists who supported Trump just had a thousand extra bucks a month in their pocket, they’d be a whole lot less racist. That identity politics is for the “weak overwoke SJW“ who only complains about racism without actually doing anything to solve it. This same kind of logic has been used against MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, where white moderates chided MLK for being too impatient for wanting progress “too soon”, with misplaced faith that the system will eventually redress racial injustices.

But ultimately, it’s Yang and his supporters who misappropriate MLK’s ideas. While Yang is comfortable to invoke MLK’s name in pushing UBI, it’s clear that Yang did not read anything with regard to how MLK viewed the race problem. If Yang delved a bit deeper, he would read about how the good Reverend didn’t just meet with African American elites, he listened to the groans of the poor and the most vulnerable by living among them first in the rural South and later in the urban Chicago area. He would read how MLK wavered back and forth in his mission as white racists who were not simply “ignorant” would try to roll back every change he fought for with violence and disturbances, as resulting deaths of little girls at a church bombing and other casualties from the Civil Rights Movement weighed on his conscience. He would read how the purpose of nonviolent protests were to highlight the outrage of injustices, not to sweep them under the rug. He would read how MLK was not only interested in the financial well being of his people, but of their dignity and self respect as human beings in this country, with the understanding that people are more than the value they can contribute to capitalism. He would read in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, a letter to fellow ministers imploring him to take the “high road” and give up the struggle, that their notions of appeasement were misguided. But most of all, he would read that MLK, even the day before his death, did not consider his mission to solve the race problem in America to be anywhere near complete.

If I were to have the opportunity to speak to Yang, I’d ask him where that angry young kid who was bullied in high school was, the same guy who decided to put some time in the gym to ward off would be bullies. I’d tell him that not only does his strategy of appeasement hurt Asian Americans, that if he ultimately understood the other lesson of why Trump won, he’d understand that American exceptionalism is rooted in ideas of white supremacy and that catering to Americans by allowing their “level 1 racism” is self defeatist. Nonwhite minorities will see you as a sell out, and white racists smell this sort of brown-nosing a mile away and revel in how foolish you are. In my personal experience as an Asian American, I’ve found that the more assertive you are, the more respect you actually get. And those that disparage you for leaning into identity politics when you show a little righteous anger and stand up for your own people were never your true supporters to begin with.

I still believe that Yang understands how the economy works on a macro level and I have no doubt he’d excel in a finance related position. I even still believe he correctly identifies a lot of the reasons why Trump was elected and that the Democrats are still ignoring many of these issues. But if he’s going to speak on race and social related issues, and especially if he’s going to speak for Asian Americans, he needs do the fucking work. He won’t be able to solve these problems with math.


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Doug Kim

Published a month ago