If you've kept up with the news, you'll know that the Thursday Democratic debate will allow seven hopefuls on stage. And all but one—excluding Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who has risen from almost complete obscurity to become one of the only few Asian Americans to mount a viable run at the presidency—are white.
The demographics of the debate stage has sparked ongoing discussions concerning its failure to reflect the demographics of the American people. Mr. Yang, the only remaining person of color on that stage, has responded to those asking him about occupying that role. “A couple of journalists have asked me whether I feel a responsibility to represent all people of color on the debate stage,” he recently tweeted. “I tell them that is impossible — our communities are too diverse for that. Most Americans I meet are concerned about very similar things.”
John Chiang, the former California state treasurer and founder of a political action committee aimed to elect more Asian and Pacific Islander Democrats to office, added his voice to the discussion about the former rarity of seeing Asian Americans in office. "So often, Asians aren’t viewed as leaders but they are viewed as competent,” he noted. “It plays across the board and whether it’s correct or not, it’s left an impression. You have an understanding of what Asians are and they are not seen as political leaders in the collective consciousness.”
But if we take a step back from Thursday's debate stage, we can see that rarity beginning to dissipate. The 2020 Democratic primary was the very first time that three Asian-American and Pacific Islanders sought a major party’s nomination for president: Senator Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who was born in Samoa, and of course, Mr. Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
Perhaps as second-generation Asian Americans come of age, we are now seeing them show increased engagement with American politics, at times stepping up to the stage themselves. However, the argument that Asian Americans are still too often left out of conversations concerning people of color yet stands.
Representative Mark Takano, a Japanese-American Democratic congressman from Riverside, California, expanded, “It’s a blind spot even among progressives." He continued, “In my experience, progressives are dominated by a lot of educated white people. They tend to think about African-Americans and Latinos as people of color, and Asian-American somehow doesn’t count.” He points to the "model minority" image as the core of the problem, a myth that characterizes Asian Americans as high-achieving, diligent, and competitive and sets them apart from blacks or Latinos.
Mr. Yang has noticeably excluded deeper discussions about his background in his run, focusing instead on his signature idea, universal basic income. Yet his treatment of his own racial identity has been scrutinized and even criticized by members in the Asian American community. One of his taglines, for instance, “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” and his brief comment during a debate, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors," have been denounced, claimed to be propelling the model minority myth at a time when his presence at the center of the political stage could be doing much good for realistic and truthful discussions of the diverse Asian American community.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American novelist and English professor at the University of Southern California, commented, “He has really treated his Asian identity as a point of humor or deflection, and he may think that’s necessary.” He further expanded, “I think it’s telling that he hasn’t found an approach that takes it seriously, rather than using it as a way to be disarming for many Americans who might not know Asians.”
Read more about Andrew Yang and the debate tonight here.