Analysis: Andrew Yang, identity politics and the race for mayor of New York
You may have noticed Andrew Yang’s striking transformation from Democratic presidential candidate to one of the top contenders for the next mayor of New York.
The businessman turned politician has made an about-face on identity politics, as the June 22 primaries draw closer (early voting began last Saturday).
Why this sudden U-turn?
Despite the change, Yang still has his detractors, who point out that his sudden embrace of his identity resembles political pimping designed to touch the hearts of voters.
In addition, there is a big difference between defending marginalized groups in grassroots speeches and centering or even meaningfully including them in a campaign platform. Critics point out that Yang is thin on policy proposals that resonate or would benefit Asian Americans.
To discuss the role of identity in Yang’s election campaign, I spoke with the professor at Columbia University Mae M. Ngai, which focuses on issues of immigration, citizenship and nationalism.
The following conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
How is identity taken into account in Andrew Yang’s mayoral campaign in New York?
Well he ain’t really running as an Asian American candidate. It’s clear. And he doesn’t conform to stereotypes. That is true. He is not trying to appeal to Asian Americans in particular. So, although it had the support of some Asian Americans, it was not adopted. as an Asian American candidate, and I think some people just assume he represents Asian Americans.
He was backed by Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), and I think he will get votes from some Asian Americans. But I think many Asian American voters who take the vote a little more seriously will not vote for him. He is not seen as someone who will be successful in representing the interests of the community.
When Yang ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, he angered many Asian Americans by playing on stereotypes. He joked that he was good at math. He joked that he knew a lot 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 way, he’s a bit like (Donald) Trump. Yang is not a fascist. But like Trump, he has no experience leading a government. Like Trump, he has a questionable track record as a businessman. Like Trump, he is prone to provocation.
Interestingly, he seems to have gone pretty far in not being an ethnic candidate. So, for whites who are reluctant to vote for a person of color, it is not threatening. I don’t know what support he’s going to get from Asian Americans – because we would like to have more representation, but it has to be more than just a face.
For one thing, the fact that he’s not a New Yorker matters, because if you want to run New York City, you need to know something about New York City. You don’t necessarily have to be born in New York, but you have to know it.
On the other hand, there is a danger any time you say that an Asian American is not from here. Saying this invokes the stereotype that Asian Americans are still foreigners.
So the idea that Asian Americans are perpetual strangers – people think it’s just a cultural stereotype, but it has a very deep history that’s been rooted in law. There were overriding exclusion laws, but there were also national and local laws in effect until the late 1940s.
What is the most interesting thing for you in the Yang / identity conversation?
I think it is interesting that he is not being discussed as an Asian American candidate. (Laughs.) This part of his campaign worked. It doesn’t really work on an identity platform.