After tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang ended his Democratic presidential campaign on Tuesday night, many experts said his run was a culturally significant moment for Asian Americans.
Yang, who made history as the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat, dropped out after a poor performance in the New Hampshire primary. While Yang largely shied away from “identity politics,” claiming it was divisive, his heritage was a frequent topic of conversation on the campaign trail, particularly given the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in politics.
“The Yang campaign is significant even if it's over,” Anthony Ocampo, a sociologist who focuses on race, immigration and LGBTQ issues, told NBC News. “The optics of an Asian American candidate commanding such widespread support, both in rallies and on social media, signals to aspiring Asian American politicians that there is a pathway for them — that they can legitimately aim for the highest office in the nation.”
Yang ran his campaign on the nontraditional platform of offering a Universal Basic Income, or $1,000 a month, to every American citizen over 18. Though he has no experience holding public office, Yang outlasted political veterans like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, both of whom are African American (Harris is also of Asian descent).
As the election cycle progressed, Yang managed to pick up prominent endorsements, including from Donald Glover, Dave Chappelle and former Rep. Mike Honda of California. He was also increasingly seen as increasingly viable, with BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief at the time Ben Smith, writing an article titled “Andrew Yang Could Win This Thing,” saying that “Yang is also worth treating as more than a curiosity because he has a grip on the thing that actually wins presidential campaigns: a clear message about the future.”
Ocampo, a sociology professor at Cal Poly Pomona,noted that Yang’s longevity in the race and viability is important, given that Asian Americans have historically been stereotyped as good workers, not leaders.
Research from the Harvard Business Review showed that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management, compared with other races.
“Asian Americans have seen time and again the way society sees them as qualified workers, but not necessarily qualified leaders,” Ocampo said. “That's what's so problematic about the Asian American model minority myth — implicit in it is the idea that Asian Americans will stay in line and not rock the boat too much.”
“Yang running for the highest office in the land breaks barriers in the sense that he wholeheartedly believes in his electability,” he said.
Ocampo also mentioned how Yang’s willingness to share his experiences with being bullied and discriminated against proved particularly powerful in helping young Asian Americans “feel seen.” On a few occasions, Yang revealed he was often beaten up for being the “skinny Asian kid” and said the experience shaped how he interacted with people as an adult.
“I feel like when I was growing up, I always felt like I was the kid left out,” Yang said in an interview. “And you never forget that feeling. And so who's left out in America today?”
Ocampo said that in sharing painful experiences, Yang highlighted “a serious problem about the way Asian Americans in this country — no matter the level of English proficiency or cultural assimilation — are subject to the very painful experience of racism, in schools, in the workplace, in the media.”
“Granted, Yang did elevate a particular type of Asian American story — the idea of the successful immigrant story — but he also did shine a light on the fact that racism is something that continues to affect Asian Americans,” Ocampo said.
Yang’s Asian Americanness also spurred discussions around the media and race. He was frequently left off graphics by mainstream news organizations, despite polling better than many other candidates who were included, and mistakenly identified several times. The omissions prompted a debate in the Asian American community of whether they were symptomatic of how the greater American society views them.
“There is no way to prove these omissions are related to Yang’s being Asian, but it’s impossible to miss the similarities with the micro (and macro) aggressions people in the Asian American community experience daily,” Marie Myung-Ok Lee wrote in an op-edin The Los Angeles Times.
Yang previously told NBC News that he personally felt that his Asian American identity, coupled with factors like his nontraditional background, could’ve played a role in the omissions.
“I think you can make an argument that it’s somehow intersecting with some other dynamics.”
Despite Yang’s background, Asian Americans had mixed feelings about him and his campaign, particularly as he leaned on Asian jokes to garner support. In the September Democratic debate, Yang quipped that he is “Asian so I know a lot of doctors.” His campaign slogan, “Make America Think Harder,” was often referred to as “MATH.” Critics said the shtick perpetuated the “model minority myth,” claiming it wasn’t a harmless offense.
“The reality is that Asian Pacific Americans are much more diverse, and by playing into stereotypes without challenging them, Yang minimizes the challenges faced by many in the Asian Pacific American community,”John C. Yang, president of the public policy and civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told NBC News before Yang dropped out Tuesday.
When answering questions on the subject of race itself, Yang was also met with mixed reactions. During the most recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Yang responded to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claim that “we cannot just say that criminal justice is the only time that we want to talk about race specifically.” Warren called for “race-conscious laws” on issues including housing and employment.
“We can’t regulate away racism with a patchwork of laws that are race-specific,” Yang, the only candidate of color on the debate stage, shot back, before promoting his universal income.
Critics pointed out that Yang failed to acknowledge that discriminatory legislation has in part fueled the long history of the lack of buying power in communities of color, institutionalizing racism.
While many were moved by Yang’s physical representation of the Asian American community, he failed to clinch the Asian American vote. He managed to secure the most amount of Asian American donations in the third quarter, according to filings with Federal Election Commission analyzed by AAPI Data, a demographic data and policy research firm for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The donor population, however, isn’t perfectly reflective of the Asian American voting population. A survey of Democratic favorability among eligible AAPI voters in California, the state with the racial group’s largest population, revealed that 22 percent found Yang favorable, while 41 percent "haven't heard enough" about him. In contrast, 45 percent found candidate Joe Biden favorable.
With Yang now out of the race, questions around communities’ of color accessibility to political office have arisen.
“Andrew Yang is just the latest casualty of a nominating system that is unrepresentative of the country, and of the Democratic Party,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, said. “With almost all of the candidates of color eliminated before Super Tuesday, there will be a lot of pressure on the Democratic Party to find a more representative set of states than Iowa and New Hampshire to kick off the nominations process.”
Regardless of the diversity of opinions on Yang, Ramakrishnan noted that the candidate’s run prompted many Asian Americans to get involved in the political process.
“It will be important to see what he does in the next few months,” he said, “to continue encouraging young voters and those disaffected by politics to get engaged.”