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A man passes by campaign posters of mayoral candidate Andrew Yang in New York.
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Andrew Yang and the complexities of representation

“Representation is very important, but we need representation that actually represents our interest and not just our identity.”

Andrew Yang has long been a divisive figure among Asian American voters.

First, there was his penchant for amplifying stereotypes. When he was running for president in 2020, Yang quipped in a debate about how, as an Asian person, he knows a lot of doctors. It’s a comment that relies on the model minority myth, a misleading idea about Asian people’s success that ignores the economic realities of many Asian Americans and renders discrimination against them invisible.

Then there was his op-ed several months later that also offered a concerning view of how Asian Americans should present themselves in response to anti-Asian incidents and sentiment related to the coronavirus. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he argued in the Washington Post, calling on Asian people to “volunteer” and even wear “red, white and blue” to demonstrate their contributions to the US. Many pointed out how this played into the trope that Asian Americans are seen as “forever foreigners,” and put the onus on them to conform to a made-up ideal to be viewed as Americans.

“It’s this obliviousness that’s not really reckoning with your own race in a way,” says New York-based public defender Hana Le. “It’s a perspective that seems really removed from how Asian Americans have been treated in this country, at least that’s how I feel.”

Broadly, too, there is the problem of his tone-deafness and a sense that he is out of touch. This has especially been in focus since he’s campaigned to become New York’s mayor — including an awkward meeting in which he tried to compliment LGBTQ attendees by calling them “human” and when he planned to show up for an Eid event after expressing solidarity with Israel following airstrikes against Palestine. When there is so little representation in national politics, these gaffes — by a tech entrepreneur who has never held public office — can feel personally embarrassing, as some Asian Americans have noted.

Andrew Yang and his wife Evelyn Yang greet supporters before the first in-person televised debate on June 2.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The New York City primary is taking place on Tuesday — and if Yang wins (he appears to be in second place, according to an Ipsos poll released this week), he’d move on to the general election and likely become the first Asian American mayor of the largest city in the country. (Entrepreneur Art Chang is also on the primary ballot, but he’s garnered less support in polls so far.) The historical weight of this prospect has Asian American voters grappling with whether Yang offers the type of visibility they’d like to see.

According to internal polling from Yang’s campaign, many Asian American Democratic voters are supportive: A June survey shows him with 41 percent of the group’s vote; the next two candidates behind him in the survey, Dianne Morales and Scott Stringer, showed a split in the progressive vote.

“His candidacy is exciting to many because they think he’s someone who can see what we’re going through. [There’s a sense that] if he gets to be mayor, we won’t have to explain many of the challenges in the Asian American community to him,” says Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation in New York.

Yet, while his supporters appreciate his candid approach, willingness to work across the ideological spectrum, and landmark candidacy, progressives take issue with not only how he has talked about his identity, but also his policies — including calls for more funding for an NYPD Asian Hate Crimes Task Force during a time when many community members are looking for solutions that involve less policing.

Yang’s candidacy underscores the limitations of “descriptive representation” — or the type of representation that comes from a candidate sharing aspects of their identity with constituents. As University of California Riverside political science professor Karthick Ramakrishnan previously explained to NBC News, in addition to “descriptive representation,” there is also “substantive representation” — or leadership voters see as advocating for their interests.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the complicated feelings some Asian American voters have about Yang’s candidacy: Having someone in office who looks like them, who has maybe shared some of their experiences, is incredibly energizing. But some voters are concerned about the substance of his policies and whether they would actually help Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in New York City.

“Representation is very important,” says attorney Daniel Shin, a progressive voter who opposes Yang, “but we need representation that actually represents our interests and not just our identity.”

What Asian American voters see in Yang

As Yang himself has noted in the past, it’s impossible to expect any person to represent all Asian Americans, an incredibly diverse group that spans numerous ethnic, ideological, and age groups. And it’s an unfair burden often placed on candidates who are members of underrepresented groups because there are fewer people in such high-profile roles.

“There is the relative invisibility of these communities in politics, and so there is this pressure,” says Vivian Louie, director of the Asian American Studies Program & Center at Hunter College.

For a sizable group of Asian American voters, it’s exciting to have a candidate who represents them and can speak to his own lived experiences with racism and bias. Yang’s initial focus on universal basic income during the presidential race, as well as his more moderate position on public safety, has also resonated with people.

“When Asians are attacked by hate crimes, and when we are told by racists to ‘go back to your own country,’ Yang’s election would make us visible and send out a message that ‘we belong.’ He could be Asians’ Barack Obama,” Jimmy Li, the head of the Asian American Democratic Club, recently told Curbed.

Yang has used his platform to talk about personal experiences with racism: He has described racial epithets that have been used against him and noted how such abuse toward Asian Americans hasn’t been taken seriously. He’s also been outspoken about condemning hate crimes against Asian Americans and the bias his mayoral campaign has faced, including a racist depiction of him by the New York Daily News, which showed him as a tourist in Times Square after he was ridiculed for saying it was his favorite subway stop. The image, many pointed out, drew on the longstanding othering of Asian Americans as foreign to the US.

“I feel a lot of responsibility to represent Asian Americans in New York City, who feel like their place in New York, their place in America, has been questioned. And so I take that responsibility seriously,” Yang previously told NBC News.

Voters who align with his positions on policing, and other plans that he’s proposed such as expanding public banking in the city, are also enthused. “People like Yang. When the pandemic happened, he was proven right in his fight for cash relief,” says Will Lex Ham, a community organizer who has volunteered for Yang’s mayoral campaign.

Yang’s efforts have also earned him endorsements from prominent Asian American leaders including Rep. Grace Meng, state Sen. John Liu, and Assemblyman Ron Kim. AAPI Victory Fund, a national political action committee geared toward promoting Asian American candidates, has also backed his campaign.

“When the hate crimes started to bubble up, he was using the power of his voice and his new prominence to raise awareness,” says AAPI Victory Fund’s Varun Nikore, who added that Yang was only one of three candidates who showed up to a presidential forum the group had held in 2019.

Others are willing to overlook some of his past jokes and comments because they believe he’s grown. Ham acknowledged problems with the op-ed in which Yang pushed Asian Americans to “show their Americanness,” but it wasn’t a dealbreaker for the volunteer. “I did not like that article, I thought it was poorly worded, but I appreciated the intent of it.”

What Asian American voters don’t see in Yang

Many progressives, on the other hand, are not so quick to overlook Yang’s stereotyping — and they have concerns with his policies, too.

In an open letter that has been signed by more than 900 progressive Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, critics of Yang cited several points they disagreed with: his support for ramping up police in subways, the lack of detail he’s offered on issues including housing and homelessness, and his opinion piece mischaracterizing an effort to push back against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“As the 2021 mayoral candidate with the most name recognition, your track record, actions, and proposed policies concern us, as they do not uplift marginalized APIA, BIPOC, immigrant, and working class members of this city,” they wrote. “Representation alone is simply not enough.”

Several voters highlighted his response to anti-Asian hate crimes as particularly troubling, because of its focus on increased policing rather than community-based investments in social services and other public safety interventions.

“He always seems to me to be looking at things from a perspective aligned with the privileged rather than the vulnerable,” says Shin.

Policing has been a central issue in the city’s mayoral race in the wake of yearlong protests of law enforcement, and as leaders and voters grapple with how to respond to a broader increase in violent crime, including anti-Asian hate incidents. Some progressive candidates have established plans to shift funds away from police, while Yang and moderate Eric Adams have shied away from doing so.

Policing is a topic that Asian Americans are split on as well, with some pushing for more law enforcement to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans, and others arguing that such efforts won’t address their root cause.

When Yang ran for president, “I was very much one of his fans,” says Rohan Zhou-Lee, a leader of the solidarity movement Blasian March. They liked Yang’s policy positions, his focus on universal basic income, and the Asian American representation he provided. But their enthusiasm waned when Yang kicked off his mayoral candidacy.

“Anything that he says that’s pro-police completely erases the experiences of Black Asians and trans Asians,” says Zhou-Lee.

Why the stakes feel so high for Yang

A major reason there has been such scrutiny of Yang’s candidacy is how few Asian Americans are elected to office.

In 2020, there were three AAPI candidates in the Democratic presidential field: then-Sen. Kamala Harris, then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Yang, an entrepreneur turned political candidate. When it comes to elected offices overall, however, the numbers are grim: As of mid-2020, AAPI people comprised just 0.9 percent of elected officials in all levels of government despite making up 6 percent of the population, according to a Reflective Democracy Campaign report.

Were Yang to be elected, he’d not only become the first Asian American mayor of New York City, he’d also be the second person of color, after former Mayor David Dinkins, elected to the role.

New York state Sen. John C. Liu campaigns in support of Andrew Yang during a rally at City Hall Park in Manhattan on May 24.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

“If I win this race, and then people land in JFK, or drive into the Bronx, it says, ‘Welcome to New York City, Mayor Andrew Yang.’ That’s a different message about what Asian Americans can be and do in New York City and in this country,” Yang told NBC News.

Among both his supporters and detractors there is a sense that Yang has raised the profile of Asian American candidates with his mayoral run, potentially opening the door for more people down the line — and perhaps a broader array of policy positions and perspectives that could be represented.

“His candidacy highlights the rarity of successful AAPI candidates, especially for nationally prominent elected offices. ... That he has been rather successful can inspire other AAPI individuals to run in future elections, especially the next, younger generation,” says Van Tran, a sociology professor at the City University of New York.

Political races aside, his presence has also pushed the electorate to discuss issues like the model minority myth and made Asian American voters, who’ve long been neglected by both political parties, feel more seen. No matter how the race shakes out for Yang, many believe his candidacy will have a lasting impact.

“Ultimately, I don’t think those conversations would have happened if he did not run for office,” says Le.

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