Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur turned presidential candidate, has emerged on the political scene with a campaign strategy built on memes and social networking sites. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Yang is one of three candidates of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent, the other two being Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard.
Yang has managed to qualify for every Democratic debate thus far, despite a national polling average of 2%. Having fundraised a total of $15.1 million throughout the campaign cycle from approximately 300,000 unique donors, Yang relies on his loyal “Yang Gang” for support. Found primarily on the Internet on sites like Reddit, the Yang Gang continues to gain traction.
For some of the Asian American community, how Yang uses his Asian identity is a double-edged sword.
“I’m kind of hyper-aware that because he’s probably one of the first East Asian faces that people of the American public have seen, everything he does matters,” said Sunjay Lee, a senior studying NGOs and social change. “It gets me a little worried every time he says something, which is really sad, because people in America who are not minorities don’t really have to think about that.”
The perception of Asians and the model minority myth, or the idea of a minority demographic group being inclined towards higher success, permeates Yang’s campaign. Through his jokes about being “Asian and know[ing] a lot of doctors,” Yang perpetuates stereotypes about Asian people.
For Angela Chuang, a senior studying political science and the child of Taiwanese immigrants,Yang’s use of model minority myth is disheartening. “These are the stereotypes we grow up facing, and to hear someone who has this national platform and who is finally able to represent us just perpetuate the model minority myth is a little disappointing,” Chuang said.
Yet, he also insinuated that racism against Asians was not taken as seriously as racism against African Americans, tweeting, “It’s also the case that anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the n word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear,” causing a backlash among many members of the Asian American and broader minority community.
His tweets were seen as discrediting acts of racism towards other ethnic groups to “make room” for the recognition of discrimination towards Asians. “That tweet oversimplified that comparison. That was never my intent," said Yang during an October meeting with Asian American community activists and journalists.
According to USC, approximately 16.8% of USC’s student population identified as Asian American in Fall 2018. Asian was the second most commonly identified race of undergraduate students, only after White/Caucasian.
For Bryant Chang, a junior studying international relations with a concentration in global business, Yang’s Asian background was one of the factors that first appealed to him. “That was number one. For me, that was definitely his initial selling strength,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, Asian guy? That’s pretty cool.’ If you’re Asian American, it’s very much something you relate to.”
Although Yang’s background is a selling point for many, it does not appeal to everyone.
“I thought that when Andrew Yang was running, it’d be someone I would really resonate with,” Chuang said. “I think there’s definitely a lot of assumption that because I identify with his background that I should support him, but I just don’t really feel that that’s enough for me.”
Eddie Sun, a freshman studying journalism, said he feels Yang uses this ‘Asianness’ as a marketing trait, rather than something he embraces. On Yang’s campaign website, hats sporting the word ‘MATH’ can be purchased, along with a shirt with the phrase, ‘MATH. MONEY. MARIJUANA.’
“All of that is funny, but at the same time, it’s also obviously portraying to stereotypes of Asians,” Sun said. “I feel like he toes that line. I’m comfortable with it, but there’s also a part of me that wishes he was more genuine about his ‘Asianness,’ instead of kind of surface level with it.”
For Chang, it’s not Yang’s use of stereotypical Asian jokes that is the problem. It is how often he uses them. “He definitely has to be careful with how he uses that. I think the little bit that he’s using now is fine, but he definitely needs to be careful with how far he pushes that message.”
However, Yang’s mere presence in the race was groundbreaking, and provided some members of the Asian American community with a sense of pride. “There’s not a ton of Asian figures that younger people can really relate to or look up to, especially in politics, and it’s honestly a watershed moment,” Chang said.
Sun saw aspects of his own identity in Yang and said that it helps him empathize with the candidate. “My parents emigrated from a state where they didn’t have a voice in government, so talking about politics was kind of taboo, at least in my instance growing up,” Sun said. “Someone like him adds a fresh, unique perspective to the political discussion because he comes from a background where something like being able to vote and choose who represents you is kind of sacred,” he said.
Both Sun and Chang agree that Yang needs to become more cognizant of his position as a representation of the larger Asian American community.
“I think him just being Asian, running for president and gaining a lot of publicity from it could be really big for the Asian American community,” Chang said, “but if he pushes the racial stereotypes too much, he kind of throws it all away.”
According to Sun, if Yang really wants to embrace his Asian identity, he has to be more vocal about it, especially if he does end up making it to the White House. “There’s only so much meaning if all he is, is an Asian face in the White House, and he doesn’t really stand for anything that stands for Asian Americans or people of color as a whole,” he said.
For some, the larger effects of Yang’s campaigns were even more important than his potential position in the White House.
“Yang’s campaign raises a larger issue that Asian Americans are not turning out to the polls enough, or we’re not encouraging our community leaders to be running for office,” Chuang said. “I think it’s something that we should be doing, so that we can change the narrative for Asian Americans so that maybe the next time an Asian American runs, we’re not relying on these stereotypes to promote our community.”