After massive backlash from the Asian American community over a political cartoon of Andrew Yang, The New York Daily News altered a depiction of the New York City mayoral candidate to make his eyes look larger.
The illustration, which was first shared on social media by its artist, Bill Bramhall, was slammed for emulating old racist caricatures of Asian Americans as having small, slanted eyes and buck teeth and for playing into the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Though the Daily News changed the depiction of Yang for print, editorial page editor Josh Greenman insisted the depiction was “not a racial stereotype or racist caricature.”
“Andrew Yang is a leading contender to be mayor of New York City, and as commentators, his opponents and The News editorial board have pointed out, he’s recently revealed there are major gaps in his knowledge of New York City politics and policy. Nor has he ever voted in a mayoral election,” Greenman wrote in a statement provided to NBC Asian America. “Bill Bramhall’s cartoon is a comment on that, period, end of story.”
However, many feel the cartoon wasn’t just an innocuous commentary on Yang’s politics, but rather a lazy caricature that smacked of the racist way many Chinese Americans were depicted centuries ago when the U.S. experienced rampant anti-Chinese bias.
Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association, said it’s entirely possible to make a political statement about Yang without relying on those tropes.
"We want to be clear that we don't take sides in political races," she said. "We want to hold media organizations accountable in terms of the candidate coverage without feeding into or perpetuating stereotypes and historical tropes."
Yang himself responded to the cartoon Tuesday in a statement on social media, writing, “Every time you say that I’m not a real New Yorker, you’re telling another Asian American that they don’t belong.”
"I will be the first to tell you that I’m open to different opinions and will always welcome conversations on policy. And I am a proud son of immigrants," Yang wrote. "But to paint me in the media as a perpetual foreigner to this city is wrong and subtly approves racism at a time when people are being beaten on the street on the basis of who they are."
The cartoon showed Yang with small, slanted eyes running out of the Times Square subway station near a shopkeeper exclaiming, “The tourists are back!” It was in part a reference to Yang’s recent interview with comedian and television star Ziwe Fumudoh, in which he said his favorite subway stop was Times Square, an area notoriously avoided by native New Yorkers.
Greenman wrote in his statement that the drawing was changed after “people reacted badly to how Yang’s eyes were drawn,” adding that he and Bramhall stand by the concept of the cartoon.
But Underwood said the public’s interpretation of the artwork is just as important as intent when assessing the depiction.
“Pay attention to your audience,” she said. “This is part of a long, centuries' worth use of political cartoons to otherize a population. So whether or not the intent was that, the impact was felt by a segment of your audience and a growing part of an American community.”
Underwood said exaggerated, mangled depictions of Asian Americans were used to fuel arguments for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. A character, drawn with a long Manchu-style braid, slanted eyes and buck teeth, was often referred to as “John Chinaman” and weaponized to depict the “threat” of Chinese labor. The exclusion act would subsequently put a 10-year moratorium on all Chinese labor immigration.
She pointed out that such depictions appeared at various points throughout history, including during the U.S. colonization of the Philippines through a policy known as "benevolent assimilation."
“This is sort of a million micro-cuts in terms of the portrayal of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as foreigners,” Underwood said.
Van Tran, a sociology professor at The Graduate Center of City University of New York, also said these stereotypes have roots in a long history of anti-Asian racism.
“The more generous interpretation would be that Bramhall took artistic liberty in the portrayal of Yang during a moment of heightened anti-Asian sentiment, which shows a lack of judgment and consideration for the Asian community,” he said. “The less generous interpretation would be that Bramhall falls back to these racial stereotypes because racist jokes against Asians were deemed to be acceptable.”
Given what has transpired, the most appropriate course of action, Underwood said, would be to “show some sort of learning and acknowledgement of their mistake and why it was a mistake.”
“Someone should talk to the Daily News and say, ‘We've experienced centuries of these kinds of cartoons villainizing us.’” she said. “I think it's important for a newsroom to show a learning curve.”