Maybe you’ve noticed Andrew Yang’s striking transformation from Democratic presidential candidate to one of the leading candidates to be the next mayor of New York City.
The businessman-turned-politician has done an about-face on identity politics, as the June 22 primary inches closer (early voting began last Saturday).
Why the abrupt U-turn?
Despite the shift, Yang still has his detractors, who underscore that his sudden embrace of his identity feels like political pandering designed to tug at voters’ heartstrings.
In addition, there’s a big difference between sticking up for marginalized groups in stump speeches and centering or even meaningfully including them in a campaign platform. Critics point out that Yang is thin on policy proposals that resonate with or would benefit Asian Americans.
To discuss the role of identity in Yang’s mayoral campaign, I spoke with the Columbia University professor Mae M. Ngai, who focuses on questions of immigration, citizenship and nationalism.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How is identity factoring into Andrew Yang’s NYC mayoral campaign?
Well, he’s not really running as an Asian American candidate. That’s clear. And he doesn’t conform to stereotypes. That’s true. He’s not trying to appeal to Asian Americans in particular. So, though he has support among some Asian Americans, he hasn’t been embraced as an Asian American candidate, and I think that some people just assume that he represents Asian Americans.
He’s been endorsed by Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), and I believe that he’ll get votes from some Asian Americans. But I think that many Asian American voters who take voting a bit more seriously aren’t going to vote for him. He’s not being embraced as somebody who will succeed with representing the community’s interests.
When Yang ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, he angered many Asian Americans by playing into stereotypes. He joked about being good at math. He joked about knowing lots of doctors. I wonder if Yang’s mayoral campaign is, in its own way, a rebuke of his previous campaign. He wants people to notice him. He wants to be more personal.
In a sense, he’s a bit like (Donald) Trump. Yang isn’t a fascist. But like Trump, he has no experience running government. Like Trump, he has a questionable record as a businessman. Like Trump, he’s prone to provocation.
It’s interesting that he appears to have gotten quite far by not being an ethnic candidate. So, for White people who are hesitant about voting for a person of color, he’s not threatening. I don’t know how much support he’s going to get from Asian Americans — because we’d love to have more representation, but it’s got to be more than just a face.
On the one hand, the thing about him not being a New Yorker is important, because if you want to run New York City, you should know something about New York City. You don’t necessarily have to have been born in New York City, but you should know it.
On the other hand, there’s a danger whenever you say that an Asian American isn’t from here. Saying that invokes the stereotype that Asian Americans are always foreigners.
So, the idea that Asians Americans are perpetual foreigners — people think that’s just a cultural stereotype, but it has a very deep history that was entrenched in law. There were overriding exclusion laws, but there were also state and local laws on the books until the late ’40s.
What’s the most interesting thing to you about the Yang/identity conversation?
I think that it’s interesting that he’s not being discussed as the Asian American candidate. (Laughs.) That part of his campaign has worked. He’s not really running on an identity platform.