Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang made a stunning argument in a Washington Post op-ed this week: To combat the recent surge in hate crimes and racism amid the coronavirus pandemic, he suggested, Asian Americans should showcase just how American they are through acts of patriotism and community.
Effectively, he wrote, Asians can help end racism by being the best citizens we can be:
We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.
Yang, who came to this conclusion after an unsettling experience of his own, appears to believe that contributing civically in a visible way is the best approach to respond to acts of prejudice.
While it’s entirely fair for him to want to confront such biases in his own way, the application of his reasoning is where things get concerning. There’s certainly a worthwhile case to be made that everyone, regardless of their background, should be stepping up and helping their communities during this devastating crisis. But Yang’s point is specifically aimed at Asian Americans.
In fact, he suggests that Asian Americans, as a group, need to demonstrate that they are positive contributors to society just to be treated as equals. It’s a deeply flawed argument that puts the onus on Asian Americans to make themselves more palatable to those who would discriminate against them. And it’s also among the latest to advance a misguided theory of “respectability politics.”
As Damon Young explained in the Root, “respectability politics” is an idea that picked up momentum in the 1990s and has been used to urge black Americans to dress or behave in a certain way as a means to neutralize racism. “It’s generally defined as what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better,” Young writes.
Yang’s op-ed makes this very case for Asian Americans, and in doing so, completely misunderstands who needs to take responsibility for the uptick in xenophobia and harassment that’s emerged as the coronavirus outbreak has gotten worse.
Ultimately, the issues of racism that his piece calls out are very real: According to a recent ABC News report, the FBI expects the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans to increase as the US continues to deal with the coronavirus — and as President Donald Trump and other members of his administration have used racist names to characterize the illness.
Last week, Stop AAPI Hate, an online reporting forum, said it had received more than 650 reports of discrimination toward Asian Americans since March 18. Such incidents have included both verbal abuse and violent attacks, including the stabbing of an Asian American family at a Texas Sam’s Club.
Yang’s argument pushes for action in response to such incidents, but in the wrong way. Suggesting that Asian Americans “need to show their American-ness” places the pressure for combating racism on people of color — and echoes a longtime pattern of doing so.
Respectability politics has always put the pressure on people of color to address racism
The issue with arguments that favor respectability politics is that they ignore how racism works: They argue that people of color need to change in order to achieve baseline equality in how they are treated, when the issue is that the people perpetuating these biases are the ones who should change their behavior so that they aren’t, well, racist.
Several journalists have noted that arguments similar to Yang’s were made toward Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11, when people were asked to respond to prejudice by showing how patriotic they were.
FWIW there were similar arguments made about Muslim Americans after of 9-11 — if you “prove” your patriotism then society will see you as truly American and not the problem.— Deepa Shivaram (@deepa_shivaram) April 1, 2020
Same arguments are made for immigrants.
None of it has decreased hate crimes.https://t.co/j52029bGAD
Yang saying "We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness..." reminds me of the pressure Muslims/Arabs/brown people were under post-9/11 and since to prove we are "moderate/good," of McCain telling a woman Obama isn't Arab, and when Trump went after Khizr Khan pic.twitter.com/8tjV8KgzY8— Hamza Shaban (@hshaban) April 2, 2020
As Young points out in the Root, such efforts aren’t only misguided, they’re ineffective.
In one citation in his op-ed, Yang notes that Japanese Americans joined the military at high rates during World War II to demonstrate their allegiance to the United States. While this commitment is incredibly admirable of those who made it, military service did little to prevent members of the Japanese American community from being sent to internment camps solely on the basis of their ethnicity.
There is no simple solution to combating the xenophobia that’s grown in recent weeks: As Yang notes, telling people to not be racist isn’t likely to be enough. It is, however, a start.
Part of what’s helped fuel such discriminatory sentiment around the coronavirus is the decision by Trump and other Republican leaders to dub it the “Chinese virus,” an act that goes against guidelines by the World Health Organization, which cautions against associating the names of an illness with any specific location because it could cause stigmatization.
While Trump has since said that the Asian American community should be protected, it’s a statement he made without even acknowledging his own comments and role in promoting racism. What’s desperately needed to further address ongoing prejudice now is more lawmakers and others who have a public platform, Yang included, being willing to call it out and condemn verbal or physical attacks against Asian Americans.
This week, several House members — including Reps. Judy Chu and Hakeem Jeffries — were among those who vocalized such positions. Similarly, Sens. Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, and Mazie Hirono, as well as Rep. Grace Meng, have introduced a resolution that calls on law enforcement to hold people accountable for the hate crimes they commit.
“Let’s be clear: COVID-19 does not target any group by race or ethnicity. We must condemn any instance of racism or discrimination, wherever it exists,” Harris said in a statement.
Asian Americans don’t need to prove their Americanness to anyone
Among the concerning elements of Yang’s op-ed is that it operates off an assumption that Asian Americans have something to prove with regards to just how much they belong in the United States. Yang’s point that Asian Americans should “wear red white and blue” feels especially ludicrous.
Laying out my Andrew Yang-approved outfit for work tomorrow pic.twitter.com/NG2LG6VxT4— Ryan Mac (@RMac18) April 3, 2020
Certainly, the premise that Asian Americans are considered “other” is a viewpoint from which those who hold discriminatory beliefs may operate. After all, it’s a longstanding bias grounded in an ugly history of xenophobia that has existed since people of Asian descent began immigrating to the US, one that includes the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, both of which were aimed at barring Chinese people from entering the country.
It’s disheartening, however, to see this dynamic acknowledged as the default assumption by an Asian American leader himself.
There’s nothing to be gained in denying the reality that Asian Americans, many immigrant groups, and people of color are still treated differently by those who hold biases or find it advantageous to inflame existing disparities.
But explicitly telling Asian Americans that we need to justify our Americanness reinforces such frames instead of rejecting them completely.