For nearly as long as he’s been running for New York City mayor, Andrew Yang has had to contend with the criticism — from journalists, voters and political rivals — that he’s not a “real” New Yorker.
The skepticism can at least partially be attributed to Yang himself: On the campaign trail, he has made many gaffes that exposed shortfalls in knowledge of a city he’s running to govern, whether it’s the existence of domestic abuse shelters or the size of a typical bodega.
But a controversial editorial cartoon from The New York Daily News — which depicted a slant-eyed Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, hopping out of a Times Square subway station, while a shop owner says, “The tourists are back!” — raised questions about whether these charges of foreignness are also rooted in racism or unconscious bias. The news outlet said it altered his eyes for the print version — a move that drew more backlash.
New Yorkers have, of course, a long-standing and subjective list of criteria that grants someone the ability to claim the city as theirs. But denying that to an Asian American, even in jest, has a different weight, experts say.
Van Tran, a sociology professor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said the commentary on Yang’s identity cannot be divorced from the backdrop of rising anti-Asian hate and a century of discrimination Asians have endured in the United States, which included laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first instance of the U.S. restricting immigration based on race and class, which was repealed in 1943.
“The weight of history is so heavy in this case, it’s not just about identity politics."
Van Tran, sociology professor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Historians have pointed to the legislation as part of the foundation for modern-day slurs like "Go back to your country" and the tendency to depict Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners.
“The weight of history is so heavy in this case, it’s not just about identity politics,” he told NBC Asian America. He added that the unprecedented nature of Yang’s campaign — vying to be the city’s first mayor of Asian descent — comes with the added pressure of having to represent an entire racial group.
The cartoon referenced Yang’s recent interview with comedian Ziwe Fumudoh, in which he claimed that Times Square is his favorite station. Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley condemned the drawing, tweeting: Yang “should not have to endure this. No New Yorker who is Asian or Pacific Islander should. This is an offensive cartoon and we all have an obligation to call it out.”
Josh Greenman, the Daily News’ editorial page editor, wrote in a statement that the cartoon is merely a comment on “major gaps” in Yang’s knowledge of the city’s politics and policy and the fact that he’s never voted in a mayoral election. It was not, Greenman emphasized, “a racial stereotype or racist caricature.”
But Tung Nguyen, chairman of Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Alliance, said it’s possible to criticize Yang’s policies and inexperience without invoking age-old racist stereotypes about Asian Americans.
“You can criticize his policies all you want,” he said. “You can say he doesn’t know how New York works, but you don’t caricaturize that by saying he’s a ‘tourist.’”
Yang’s failure to recall basic facts about the city don’t imply that he’s not a native New Yorker, Nguyen said, given that he was born in New York state, went to Columbia Law School and has lived in the area for a quarter century. Giving credence to the perpetual foreigner trope, Nguyen said, can make it more difficult for other Asian Americans hoping to run for office in the future.
Yang addressed the ripple effect of this “othering” in a social media statement Tuesday. “Every time you say that I’m not a real New Yorker,” he wrote, “you’re telling another Asian American that they don’t belong.”
“There was nothing in the cartoon that said all Asian Americans were tourists. The content was about the responses he’s given about the city of New York, not about his identity as an Asian American.”
Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference
Not everyone agrees that expressing skepticism about Yang’s New York roots is inherently racist.
“There was nothing in the cartoon that said all Asian Americans were tourists,” Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference, said. “The content was about the responses he’s given about the city of New York, not about his identity as an Asian American.”
She noted Yang’s failure to vote in several local elections in recent years and his apparent confusion over a question about Section 50-a, a state law that had for decades been used to shield police disciplinary records from public view.
Dukes said it’s important to exercise caution in labeling political art racist, given that harsh scrutiny and criticism has long accompanied public service. At the same time, she said, a limited understanding of city and state politics shouldn’t render someone an outsider in a place they consider home.
“It’s childish for people to say he’s not a New Yorker just because he doesn’t know all the issues,” she said. “He lives here, so he is a New Yorker.”
Tran, of the City University of New York, said the intense scrutiny of Yang’s New York roots is, ultimately, hypocritical, as many white politicians have been elected as outsiders with little outcry. The roster includes former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria and didn’t move to the U.S. until he was 21.
“Time and again we see evidence showing that people make too much of Yang’s outsider status,” he said. “The fact that he said Times Square is his favorite station? That’s a deeply personal answer. The fact that people question whether Times Square could be a favorite station for someone living in New York is insane.”