Since his arrival on the public scene, Andrew Yang has taken a great deal of flak from Asian American and Pacific Islander activists. On the presidential campaign trail his “Asian man who likes math” jokes were roundly criticized by sociologists and academics, while his Washington Post op-ed suggesting that Asian Americans should “show (their) American-ness” as a means of combating the rise in anti-Asian racism due to the coronavirus pandemic drew the ire of many Asian American voices in media and on twitter. More recently, City & State reported on a letter from “more than 400 Asian New Yorkers” — primarily progressive activists — opposing Yang’s mayoral run.
One would think that such strident criticism would translate to a lack of support on the ground for Yang among Asian American New Yorkers, but this is not borne out in the polls – Emerson in March found Yang had the support of 60% of Asian voters, while a Slingshot Strategies poll in April (sponsored by the Yang campaign) found he was viewed favorably by 62% of Asian likely primary voters, compared to only 20% who viewed him unfavorably.
Based on this disconnect between what activists say and polling numbers, it is reasonable to conclude that these activists represent only a small slice of the Asian American community, and not the average Asian American voter. The letter (now featuring a whopping 794 signatories, or 0.06% of the New York City Asian American population) focuses heavily on identity-based social justice issues, and is thoroughly couched in language that might be described as “woke”. It is also hyperbolic – absurdly claiming that Sam Harris’s podcast “Making Sense” is an “alt-right podcast” or that Yang has refused to condemn racist behavior in his supporters (he has, repeatedly).
Although I do not claim to speak for all Asian Americans in New York or around the country, I get a different picture of both how average Asian Americans perceive Yang and of the criteria on which they judge him. Personally, after listening to Yang’s long-form interviews during his presidential run, I was attracted to his “non-politician” style and thought he was correctly identifying automation-induced job loss as a source of the pain and struggle that caused many ordinary Americans to vote for Trump in 2016. While I was skeptical about the financial feasibility of his Freedom Dividend plan ($1000/mo to all Americans), I’m excited that he has a chance to perform a huge universal basic income trial in New York, and am inspired by the possibility of eliminating extreme poverty in the city. Additionally, I appreciate that he is willing to engage in a dignified manner with those who might not agree with him, such that former harsh critics can become vocal supporters. The fact that he makes the odd self-deprecating Asian joke does not bother me.
I hear a similar message when I ask my Asian American friends and family about their take on Andrew Yang. Brian Kang, a friend who attends NYU, is excited that Yang is representing Asians in politics, and feels he is a “very intelligent guy,” “forward thinking,” and likes how he is not easily labeled as “liberal” or “conservative” but is instead simply “realistic.” Another friend, Daniel Eem, who lives in Manhattan, finds him “likable” but is not sure if he fully supports Yang’s centerpiece universal basic income platform. He also notes that he knows “plenty of other Asian Americans who love Yang”, and although he hasn’t followed the mayoral election closely so far, would be open to voting for him. A third, Rishabh Das in Manhattan, likes UBI and has been a fan of Yang ever since he heard one of his viral “closing statement” speeches in the presidential debate. In addition, the more politically engaged members of my family, although not New Yorkers, are either fans of Yang or are skeptical of his qualifications or his policies but still find him likable and are happy with his representation.
This sort of attitude toward Yang seems to be much more representative of Asian American sentiment than the views of the signatories of the Asians against Yang letter. As far as I can tell, based on my own experience, and backed up by the polls, Yang has the support of the average Asian American New Yorker. These activists do not represent us.