Asian Americans should be excited about Yang’s candidacy, but host Phan deconstructs why his views on race are far from progressive or unifying in a fractured America.
Some topics are hard to discuss: racism, sexual violence, immigration reform, slavery, gun control. Rarely do we realize that the accepted narratives come from our oppressors, who wield the power and money to have their POV dominate our thoughts. But not for educator and organizer Phan.
Plan A Magazine is proud to present Phan’s podcast, Pod of Most Resistance, Challenging Dominant Narratives One Episode At A Time. Join Phan as she tackles the most perverse misconceptions and skewed narratives within contemporary politics and tells the story of America from the side of resistance.
The following transcript comes from the show Pod of Most Resistance, episode “Andrew Yang Knows a Lot of Doctors.” It has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s an interesting social phenomenon playing out right now. Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur running for president of the United States. He’s the son of Taiwanese immigrants and has had a comfortable upbringing in upstate New York. Even though candidates Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard also carry Asian blood, Yang is the only candidate who can claim to be exclusively Asian American.
The first Asian American to run for president was a Cantonese American man by the name of Hiram Fong, who was a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and ran for the Republican nomination in 1964. Bobby Jindal, the Indian American former governor of Louisiana was the second Asian American man to run for president, also under the Republican party, in 2016.
That means that Andrew Yang is the first Asian American man in history to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. When I tried to fact check this, the only result I got was Wikipedia, and there weren’t even any citations. I found this rather odd because that means not a single major newspaper thought this was a historic moment worth reporting. Why isn’t this being talked about more?
“Andrew Yang is the first Asian American man in history to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Why isn’t this being talked about more?”
Contrast this with the media coverage that has surrounded other candidates. We’ve usually heard endless chatter about how in our lifetime we could see the first black president, first female president, first gay president, first... Asian president? I can’t say there’s been any anticipation built up for an Asian American in the White House. Sadly, Yang’s campaign hasn’t done much to rally Asians Americans behind this mission either.
In times that Andrew Yang has spoken to a general audience, he doesn’t go into detail about his experiences with any sort of racialized lens. He’s mentioned being a target of racial slurs growing up but never dwells on it enough to make any profound point about race. On rare occasions where he does speak to an Asian audience, you’ll notice that race folds itself into conversation more effortlessly. The result is that we have an Asian presidential candidate who hasn’t figured out how to move past what many of us have been socialized to do, and that is regarding our non-white backstory as non-essential or even distracting information. It’s public knowledge that Yang doesn’t care about racial politics at all, but it is nonetheless a detriment to all the people he represents.
In the absence of figurative color, Yang is essentially projecting an image of whiteness. The price tag Yang is paying for plastering his racial identity is a narrative that is sadly unoriginal, at times contrived, and frankly uninspiring. When he does invoke his Asianness, racial identity becomes a joke. It was during the Democratic debate at Texas Southern University that cringes rippled through millions of Americans when Andrew Yang said, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.”
Using the stereotype of Asian doctors is not funny, an actual distraction from his debate answer, and only does harm to the community. Instead of reducing Asians to stereotypes, Andrew Yang should be using his platform to tell stories about Asians who are being deported, Asians who are losing their healthcare, Asians who’ve had to learn English to support their families, and Asians who are helping their community.
Yang has made it clear that he only sees his racial identity as a distraction or a prop. This is what happens when people of color try to position themselves as close as possible to whiteness: they forget to talk about their own humanity. This is a troubling precedent that we’ve set for ourselves as we’re about to see the Asian American population double by 2040 and see the United States become a majority minority country by 2045. The bad news is that the U.S. isn’t going to magically become racially accepting or even tolerant overnight. Many young Asian Americans are growing apprehensive about the increase of racial violence, and with good reason.
Speaking to a predominantly Asian audience at an event hosted by Yuan Media, Andrew shared this ominous message.
“And who is going to be the boogey man of the next ten to twenty years? Who's going to be the great rival to the United States in the eyes of American society? China, that's right. And so what do you think the attitude is going to be over time? I think we're one generation away from falling into the same camps as the Jews who were attacked in a synagogue in Pittsburgh just a couple months ago.
“It's like we're probably one generation away from Americans shooting up a bunch of Asians saying like, damn the Chinese because there's a giant cold war or even more with China. That is the great danger that I fear that my children are going to grow up in.”
It’s a chilling message, and in my opinion one of Yang’s most, maybe only poignant statements about race. Since he brought Asians into the conversation of gun violence, let’s talk about it.
On August 3rd, after driving 10 long hours, a 21-year old white man unloaded a AK-47 on Walmart shoppers in El Paso, Texas, wounding 22 people and killing 24. His motivation? To stop the “invasion” of immigrants. A handful of presidential candidates were declared this was unequivocal evidence that Trump is a white supremacist. When Yang was guest on CNN, he was asked whether he thought the same. His response was equivocation:
“If someone acts and speaks in a certain way, then you have no choice but the say that’s what he is.”
Compared to other politicians in the wake of these horrific shootings, Yang has been relatively unimpressive in condemning white supremacy for its role in our mass gun violence epidemic. Yet behind his displays sympathy for the victims and his plans for gun safety, Yang is the only candidate who does not support a federal ban on assault weapons. His overall reticence on this issue should be troubling to all of us because the last thing Americans need right now is a president who is naive enough to believe that peaceful resolution with the NRA and the minority of alt-right 2nd Amendment fanatics is possible. To his credit, Yang finally admitting that Trump is white supremacist at the Iowa State Fair, but not until he was pressed about it:
Make no mistake here: Yang is a politician through and through because he’s trying to win an election. Like many other candidates, his priority when phrasing his answers will always be motivated by a calculated political agenda to appeal to as many voters as possible, not appeal for justice. So here’s the question we must ask ourselves: if Andrew Yang is the epitome of a center-left politician, what does it mean when a centrist doesn’t even feel confident condemning the occupant of the White House for being a white supremacist, and in fact hesitates to implicate white supremacy in discussions of domestic terrorism?
It means that one of the tenets of American centrism is to allow white supremacy and racial violence to exist. Many Americans want to believe that centrism implicitly means “moderation,” “middle ground,” and “compromises on both ends,” but sadly that’s far from the truth. That can’t be what centrism means if the outcome is more white supremacist-led violence. The reason why American centrism engenders violence is because that is the status quo we have now. Americans don’t have to imagine a society that’s regressed to anarchy, lawlessness, corruption, and fascism—because we’re already seeing it.
The truth is we cannot fundamentally change the moral landscape of this country while also protecting ourselves from talking about racism and delaying action against it. That’s not to say that race needs to be part of every discussion, but when race becomes unavoidable, people of color are forced to walk a fine line between advocating for racial justice and being perceived as white people haters. Many Asians such as Yang who are fortunate enough to have a voice are also sitting in a precarious position of privilege. Like many Asians, Yang grew up with an upper-class background, placing him adjacent to white privilege, and yet it is these people who don’t see the correlation between their privilege and its proximity to whiteness. Really, our privilege is defined by whiteness.
I’m not saying Asian Americans consciously or unconsciously feel indebted or loyal to white people for having pity on us. The point is that our position occupies some place in the racial hierarchy that is not incidental nor entirely self-determined. The Model Minority Myth was conceived by the white dominated news outlet in the 1960s in an article penned by a white man, so that white people can renounce their culpability in the systematic oppression of black people. In some respects we play a secondary role in our own racialization.
“There is a story about full-bodied Asian American humanity that is not being told and the only way to tell it is if we embrace and put forth our Asian and American identities.”
There is a difference between Asian American privilege coexisting with white supremacy and existing because of white supremacy. It is a kind of privilege that is propped up by white praise, one that cannot reverse the inertia of white indifference, withstand skepticism of white mainstream media, or find justice in a system that protects white people. It is because we are a product of white supremacy that our privilege is a disingenuous olive branch extended to racial minorities so that white people can feel like they’ve done something.
Ultimately our only recourse would be to challenge the very institutions that have made of us a shining example for all other minorities to follow. Even though individually we may not feel the physical weight of oppression, there is a real and innate fear within all of us that the moment we make an enemy of white institutions, we will be framed as terrorists, rapists, liabilities, or traitors, not unlike the plight for fellow black and brown Americans today. I know for a fact that Andrew Yang is aware of our tenuous privilege. At the same event where he predicted the rise of violent anti-Asian xenophobia, he also said this.
“And Asian Americans historically have not been highly politically active or energized. Asian Americans vote at lower levels, they donate at lower levels, and because of this, the dominant political parties do not care about Asian Americans. They do not regard us as a very important constituency at all. They regard us as a low-level ATM, where they'll show up, take some pictures, because we love pictures, get some money, leave, and then not have to care about it for quite some time. That is our place in American politics right now.”
What we should become acutely aware of as our fear of heightened anti-Asian violence looms over us is that the case to be seen as a politically powerful demographic needs to be made now. We may be a small proportion of voters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t support the movements that will fundamentally change how minorities are treated in this country. If we continue to believe that taking the moral high ground categorically means forgiving people for calling us chinks in 2019 without any consequences, we will never see the end of it. If we don’t advocate for ourselves first instead of centering our conversation on forgiving the offenders, nobody will advocate for us.
In case it wasn’t clear by now, Andrew Yang’s popularity is not an example of our arrival to a post-racial society. When Andrew Yang uses anecdotes like “My father grew up on a peanut farm in Asia with no floor, and now his son is running for president,” he is strengthening the decades-long myth that individual perseverance is bred into Asian culture but not Black culture. It erases the reality that most people are not subjected to the same level of surveillance and criminalization as black, brown, and poor people. In fact he’s doing harm to all underserved communities with this trope. This anecdote completely belies the unique privilege that many Asian Americans hold whereby many of us were born to educated immigrants or came here on student or “high-skilled” work visas, which includes Yang’s father.
Policy-wise, Yang’s most racially progressive plans thus far are more funding for historically black colleges and universities and reducing mass incarceration, but these are par for the course among Democratic frontrunners. Yang isn’t exactly setting any precedents for racial or immigration justice.
When it comes to addressing distinct issues within the Black community, Yang has made a few gaffes along the way. Take for example his interview on The Root. When asked how he would address the racial wealth gap, his answer was UBI. The host, clearly not satisfied with Yang’s answer, presses him to clarify what he would do “for black people, not specifically to everybody else.” Next, his response to the question of whether he believes in reparations was more equivocating and, surprise surprise, UBI. And then, he fumbles again by referring to “people of color” and not more specifically black people.
“Things aren’t going to change for us, unless it’s us that changes things.”
The problem is UBI isn’t just a lazy answer. It missed the mark entirely because it doesn’t address 400 years of harm done to black people. Yang consistently uses the phrases “getting more dollars into the hands of consumers” and “trickle-up economics” but UBI doesn’t address the structural racism that is responsible for red-lining, school segregation, food deserts, poor infrastructure, excessive policing of black communities, predatory lending or provide reproductive justice to black women.
Additionally, there are many alternative policies that together easily out-value $1000 a month, like a $15 minimum wage and a single payer healthcare system, neither of which Andrew Yang supports, making the prospects of UBI less promising, especially since it is meant to replace other forms of social assistance. And lastly, Yang is a proponent for charter schools which are notorious for mismanaging funds and increasing racial segregation. Altogether Yang is a stark reminder for why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about the moderate liberal.
The terrible irony here is that slavery and racial discrimination have always been at their core economic issues, and so assuming the tired “I’m a numbers guy” persona in many of his interviews is an ignorant way to enter a conversation about social justice and racially disparaging to Asians.
There is a story about full-bodied Asian American humanity that is not being told and the only way to tell it is if we embrace and put forth our Asian and American identities. And that’s going to have to be on us. Not the media, not the glamorous cast of Crazy Rich Asians, and definitely not Andrew Yang because the ones who have to pay for the price of his careless invocation of the Model Minority Myth are all people of color. Asian Americans can’t wait around for a sign before we jump into the political discussion. We need to unsubscribe from the idea, as Yang has, that we have to have the right political background in order to run for office. The truth is, many of us aren’t going to have that experience; most people of color aren’t going to be from a lineage of politicians because of generations of discrimination and being from families of recent immigrants. Things aren’t going to change for us, unless it’s us that changes things.