Tonight, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Yang joined the nine other top Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage at Texas Southern University. A noteworthy moment for Asian Americans, Yang remains one of the first Asian Americans in history to run a national campaign for the presidency.
That’s why it is all the more problematic that Yang routinely leans upon Model Minority stereotypes of Asian Americans to advance his candidacy. As early as last year, Yang routinely framed himself as qualified to be president because he is a “smart Asian” who is “good at math” — a classic Model Minority trope reminiscent of the infamous Time magazine cover that popularized model minority stereotypes for a generation of Americans. Tonight, Yang invoked a different facet of the Model Minority Myth when he quipped in response to a question on healthcare that “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.“
The Model Minority Myth has stood at the root of a good deal of anti-Asian racism and oppression. Yet, Yang is unconcerned by the many ways that the Model Minority Myth hurts Asian Americans and other people of colour. Instead, Yang sees Model Minority caricatures of Asian Americans as something to lean into and to laugh at, and he even sells math-branded Yang swag in his campaign store.
I can’t but wonder if Andrew Yang sees Model Minority stereotypes as a joke, then who’s really laughing with him?
Model minority stereotypes of Asian Americans first crystalized in 1966 with sociologist William Petersen’s article “Success Story, Japanese-American style” (pdf), published in The New York Times. In his article, Petersen explicitly contrasted high-achieving, persevering, and “law-abiding” Japanese Americans against those he labeled to be “problem minorities” — that is, Blacks fighting for civil rights in response to historic oppression. Later articles by other writers similarly profiled other “successful” Asian American groups, birthing the modern “Model Minority” stereotype of Asian Americans.
Today, the Model Minority Myth has changed little from the 1960’s when it arose as direct repudiation of Black liberation efforts. Asian Americans are touted as wealthy, highly-educated, and hard-working success stories — a testament to how our system selectively rewards well-behaved model minorities at the expense of those Petersen described as “problem minorities”. The Myth pits communities of colour against one another, suggests we ignore the scars of systemic racism, and encourages us to bootstrap our way into racial acceptance — as if that were even possible.
The history of the Model Minority Myth — and specifically, its roots in anti-blackness — betray its core function as a powerful tool to uphold white supremacy. Like Petersen half a century ago, today’s pundits — often, but not always, on the Right — still breathlessly invoke the stereotype of the smart, hard-working Asian American who is good at math and who knows his place to legitimize their disdain of supposedly underperforming and uppity Blacks.
Model minority stereotypes are not fun, good-natured flattery. They are ugly, demeaning, racist caricatures that co-opt the Asian American identity into the service of assaulting Black civil rights.
The Model Minority Myth is, of course, based on a myth. Time and time again, proponents of the Myths will rechristen themselves amateur sociologists to declare that the Myth is based in fact. Asian Americans actually are smarter, they declare. We actually are all doctors. We actually all do love math.
Certainly, there are some Asian Americans who may embody characteristics consistent with model minority stereotypes. In any community, there will be smart folks, nerdy folks, apolitical folks, and folks who like math. The problem is not that these folks exist, but that when it comes to Asian Americans, the Model Minority Myth asserts these individuals to be meek, intelligent, and industrious because they are Asian.
Model minority stereotypes obscure the real diversity of the Asian American community. Whereas some Asian Americans enjoy above-average median household incomes and better access to higher education, they are a subset of Asian Americans and it is concerning and unhelpful to consider them representative of the community as a whole.
Every time the Model Minority Myth is misrepresented as fact, we render invisible the real facts about Asian Americans. We fail to see the staggering wealth gap among Asian Americans which leaves more than 10% of Asian Americans living below the poverty line. We ignore evidence that the poverty rate is several times higher for some Asian American ethnic groups, whose members also struggle with far reduced access to college.
Andrew Yang jokes that as an Asian, he knows a lot of doctors — implying that many Asian Americans are culturally-inclined to become (or befriend) doctors. This joke forgets how US immigration selects for promising, well-educated Asian immigrants creating a skewed perception of who Asian Americans are. It also sweeps under the rug the many Asian Americans who don’t have a personal or professional relationship with a doctor because they don’t have sufficient healthcare coverage, and therefore are less likely to both seek and receive effective medical care for any number of health conditions.
The Model Minority Myth hurts Asian Americans because it erases the many ways in which some Asian Americans struggle, and how they depend on public assistance to survive. The perniciousness of the Model Minority Myth has cemented decades of Asian American marginalization in conversations of who gets — and who deserves — social services and civil rights.
So long as the Model Minority Myth continues to go unchallenged, many Asian Americans who strain under the weight of institutionalized racism are rendered totally invisible.
These Asian Americans deserve better than to have an Asian American presidential candidate emphasize and reinforce that invisibility, and to do it on a national debate stage for a cheap laugh.
Andrew Yang insists that his repeated references to model minority stereotypes are a joke that most of America is in on. But how can this be true when serious national discussion on the Model Minority Myth remains in its infancy, and the Myth so rarely goes publicly challenged? How can we be all in on the joke when academics and commentators alike so often present the Model Minority Myth as fact?
Other times, Andrew Yang says he is reclaiming negative stereotypes to empower nerdy Asians. But, efforts to reclaim negative slurs and stereotypes can only go hand-in-hand with sophisticated conversation about how those stereotypes are damaging and unrepresentative of the community when taken at face value. Yang does not do this. There is nothing subversive towards the Model Minority Myth in selling an “I *heart* Math” t-shirt.
The most upsetting aspect of Andrew Yang’s stubborn reinforcement of model minority stereotypes is that they distract from the conversation we could be having about the ideas he advances as a presidential candidate. For all of the Twitter outcry over Yang’s “I know a lot of doctors” quip tonight, there has been little attention on how Yang, — in serving as white people’s ambassador to the national Asian doctor contingent — criticized the legal process by which patients can hold doctors accountable for malpractice.
“[Doctors] tell me that they spend a lot of time on paperwork, avoiding being sued and navigating the insurance bureaucracy,” said Yang as he discussed healthcare reform. This statement would suggest that Yang blames malpractice lawsuits, at least in part, for why the American healthcare system is failing. Never mind, of course, that malpractice suits are a crucial protection against doctors whose inattention and irresponsibility can injure or kill the patients in their care.
And yet, we’re not talking about whether Yang just allied himself with a potentially harmful position on medical tort reform at all.
I didn’t want to spend my night writing yet another treatise on why the Model Minority Myth should be relegated to the dustbins of history. But here we are: Andrew Yang, supposed scion of political progressive Asian Americana, seems to be so unconcerned by (or, so uneducated in) the problematic history of the Myth that he keeps endorsing these damning stereotypes on the national presidential stage.
I have not hidden my skepticism of the Andrew Yang campaign for the White House. Specifically, I continue to take issue with some of his policy prescriptions. Regardless of these concerns, the Asian American community deserves far better than an Asian American candidate who clowns around with model minority stereotypes. We deserve, at the very least, an Asian American candidate who recognizes the diversity of the Asian American community and who can speak to all of our experiences, rather than one who universalizes his Asian American identity as our own.
We deserve, at the very least, an Asian American presidential candidate who is up-to-date with the current discourse around the Model Minority Myth’s inherent racism — a discourse that most anti-racist Asian Americans are already familiar with. We deserve, at the very least, a candidate who has the pulse of Asian American identity politics; not one who sees anti-Asian stereotypes as a chance to grab a cheap punchline.
Again, I have to wonder: if Yang is joking, who’s laughing?