Since he first entered the Democratic primary race in 2017, entrepreneur and seemingly unlikely presidential candidate Andrew Yang has recently taken 6th in the polls. Besides his outsider status, what really sets him apart from the other candidates is his cohort of passionate supporters known as the Yang Gang.
While Yang is the first Asian American man to run for president, he is only one out of two candidates of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent – the other being Tulsi Gabbard, who is Samoan-American. Kamala Harris, who has Indian heritage (but identifies as simply “American”), recently joined the ranks of the many experienced politicians Yang has outlasted.
Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, is currently the only East Asian American candidate running for president. For some East Asian American students at Northwestern, while his identity is a plus, they are more supportive of him due to his policies.
“I definitely think that being Chinese American, you feel a connection of sorts seeing Andrew Yang standing on the debate stage,” said Weinberg and School of Communication junior Joyce Cui. “But honestly, I think it’s more that I find his policies to be very relevant to society today.”
While Yang is known for touting universal basic income, or what he labels the “Freedom Dividend,” East Asian American students supporting Yang listed a wide range of policies they were excited about, such as making data a property right and reforming the electoral system.
“At first when I saw him, I thought ‘Oh cool, an Asian man running for president,’” said Weinberg first-year Jack Lin, who identifies as Chinese American and the son of immigrants. “Later, I saw him explaining all [his policies], and it just makes sense.”
Lin said he is now focused more on Yang’s qualifications for president rather than his ethnicity.
John Lee, a co-chair for outreach at Northwestern’s Korean American Student Association (KASA), said that while it was “kind of cool to see someone who looks like you running for president,” Yang’s most appealing attribute was his age.
“He knows how to connect with young people,” Lee said, adding that his platform was more appealing than other young candidates such as Buttigieg. Lee also touted Yang’s commitment to policies aimed to help the American workforce adjust to AI.
Those criticizing Yang also focused more on his policies and other factors rather than his ethnicity.
“It’s the content of one’s politics that matters to me more than someone’s ethnicity,” said William Kang, Lee’s co-chair of outreach at KASA.
Kang, who identifies as a leftist, thinks Yang’s solutions to the issues facing America aren’t drastic enough and believes he doesn’t stray far enough from the Democratic Party’s norms (although he admits “1000 dollars a month would be pretty freaking nice”).
Despite the focus on Yang’s policies over his ethnicity, Yang’s Asian American background has led to a conversation about how he impacts Asian America in the political sphere.
While Yang has energized young Asian American voters, many activists from the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community argue that Yang’s handling of his Asian descent on the campaign trail is counterproductive for the larger Asian American community.
Progressive AAPI activists point to his comments during a debate that because he is Asian, he knows a lot of doctors. Yang also sells MATH (“Make America Think Harder”) merchandise on his website and frequently includes his Asian descent in jokes on the campaign trail. Comments like these, activists say, have the potential to reinforce the model minority myth, a harmful and incorrect stereotype that suggests that Asian Americans are more socioeconomically successful than the average American. The myth drives a wedge between different minority groups in America and lumps the experience of many ethnic groups into one narrow experience.
Cui, despite supporting Yang, said she cringes when she sees him joke about his Asian American identity. However, she doesn’t think it’s “super problematic” because “people have tendencies to make fun” of themselves, bringing up the popular Facebook meme group “Subtle Asian Traits” as an example.
Lee pointed out that Yang could not “fully embody all spectrums of the Asian American experience,” and said he appreciated that Yang was being “authentic.”
“I don’t think it should cloud your judgment on whether to vote for him,” Lee said.
Both Cui and Lin said they thought the majority of people who listen to him understand that his jokes are not meant to be taken literally, and the model minority myth is just that: a myth, and Lee said he didn’t see it as much of an issue. However, other East Asian American students think Yang’s jokes are more harmful.
“When I see Andrew Yang, and specifically with this fetishization of Asian identities, he’s perpetuating these very unhealthy stereotypes,” said first-year Dylan Zou, who is Chinese American but prefers to identify as a “citizen of the world.”
Zou, the son of a single mother, said while he thinks Yang sees the Asian American identity as “the Harvards and Stanfords amongst us,” Zou sees “our uncles and aunties and the grandparents who came over and the undocumented people who were working in the restaurants” as the “true diasporic experience” of Asian Americans.
However, Zou, like Kang, Lee, Cui and Lin, has formed his views on Yang not only through his Asian American identity but through his policies – for example, Zou doesn’t think the universal basic income is a good idea and disagrees with Yang’s position on Israel.
“If I was just worried about his representation, I would just be a guy complaining from my ivory tower about how he doesn’t represent Asian Americans,” Zou said.
Thumbnail image ("Andrew Yang" by Gage Skidmore) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0