Andrew Yang is still the most visible Asian American in politics right now
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I’m on my way to the Great Place to Work For All Summit, sure to be rich fodder for many columns to come. Check my Twitter feed for more. Today, Fortune‘s newsletter editor Karen Yuan kicks off Super Tuesday with an important reminder that in an all-white, all-Baby Boomer field, representation matters more than ever. — Ellen McGirt
On Super Tuesday, the field of major Democratic candidates has narrowed down to Biden, Bloomberg, Sanders, and Warren. While speculations float over tonight’s voting outcome, we must note that it’s already the triumph of the white candidate. The most prominent candidates of color have dropped out. (Tulsi Gabbard is still in the race.)
But one of the most novel candidates of color has stayed relevant to the election—since suspending his campaign a few weeks ago, Andrew Yang has, for the second chapter of his political career, joined CNN as a political commentator. For the biggest day of voting in the election, Yang has already put in his two cents: “He may have a nearly insurmountable lead in the delegate count by mid-March,” he said of Sanders’ post-Super Tuesday run. Yes, Biden’s South Carolina win and slew of recent endorsements makes this sound a bit crazy, but the point isn’t that Yang’s analysis is right or wrong—it’s that he’s a talking head on TV at all.
Before the election shifts its focus onto white candidates once and for all, let me put on the record this: Andrew Yang is the most visible Asian American in politics in 2020.
Yang’s continued foothold in U.S. politics is expanding America’s view of Asian Americans and what’s possible for them on a national stage. Asian-American political leaders like Judy Chu and Ted Lieu serve in Congress, but Yang is one of the few Asian Americans to catapult himself into the spotlight of presidential candidates.
And it’s especially radical that, as an Asian American, he was one of the most charismatic candidates in the race.
“Research shows that Asian American men are often stereotyped as too passive, docile, and timid for leadership roles—too “nerdy,” if you will,” says Adia Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis who examines inequality in professions. “This stereotyping can work to their detriment when it comes to attempts to advance to high-ranking positions. Seeing Andrew Yang as a candidate for presidency will ideally offset some of these misconceptions.”
He fist-bumped, danced, and crowd-surfed his way up the polls. One of the archetypes of the presidential candidate is the family man with machismo—and Yang, while representing a demographic whose masculinity is frequently undermined, embodied that fully on the campaign trail, with his wife and sons in tow. He walked a fascinating and effective balancing act between the trope of the nerdy Asian (“I am the math guy”) and that of the chummy, back-slapping, All-American dude—two cultural images historically opposed from one another.
That’s subversive, and not just for politics—though Wingfield added it was important to acknowledge that Yang did not enter the election through traditional politics.
raceAhead has discussed it before: While Asian Americans make up a significant amount of America’s professional world, they make up a scant amount of leaders in that world. In fact, they’re the least likely group in the U.S. to be promoted to leadership, whether that’s in politics, tech, or other business fields. Only 16 Asian CEOs make up this year’s entire Fortune 500.
“Asian American men frequently confront the stereotype that they do not have the ‘killer instinct’ required for leadership roles,” Wingfield says. “Stereotypes about their passivity and complacency work to their detriment.”
Yang was not expected to make it to the debate stage. He was not expected to raise the amount of money and support that he did. And he was not expected to outlast Cory Booker or Kamala Harris, the other major candidates of color. The surprise over Yang’s success is, in fact, “the general characterization of Asian Americans in leadership roles,” Buck Gee, a former Silicon Valley executive and advisor on Asian-American career advancement, says.
“This was not overt racial discrimination where people did not feel that an Asian American should not or cannot be on the stage,” Gee says, “but it was implicit bias that visible Asian American leaders are certainly welcome, but not expected.”
As an outsider, Yang has had to grapple with how to present his identity. Yang’s particular performance of Asianness—as an affable, almost race-neutral everyman—wasn’t welcomed by some, who criticized his tendency to avoid speaking on thorny topics related to race or issues affecting Asian Americans.
“Race remains a difficult if omnipresent subject in American politics, and it may have been challenging for Yang to find a way to incorporate a discussion of his racial identity into his personal, professional, and political narratives,” Wingfield says. But being silent over how issues affect Asian Americans doesn’t mean those issues are absent, she adds. “It just means that they remain unresolved.”
Still, the experts I spoke with say Yang has made a lasting positive impact on Asian Americans in leadership, for the most part.
“Andrew Yang’s candidacy bent the arc of leadership in America,” Thomas Sy, a psychology professor at University of California Riverside who studies leadership, says. “However small, this subtle shift in trajectory may create a broader podium for future Asian Americans leaders, as well as other minority leaders.”
Gee says he found the reaction to Yang from Asian Americans, while not without critique, largely positive—proving that they are “desperately looking for Asian American role models in visible positions of leadership.”
And Yang himself has reflected on his visibility. Speaking of his own legacy, he told Politico: “One of my goals in the campaign was imagining what it’d be like for me as a young Asian American kid turning on the TV and seeing an Asian American presidential candidate on the debate stage.”
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Simon Fraser University
Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.
“My brother wasn’t murdered because he was white or because he was an activist. He was murdered because, to the people that murdered him, black lives didn’t matter. To a lot of people, they still don’t matter… [this case is] an opportunity for us to recognize history in the context of the present moment. Nothing is closed about racism in America.”
—David Goodman, brother of voting rights activist Andrew Goodman, one of three people who were murdered for helping register Black voters in Mississippi in 1964. Those murders remain unsolved.