During the most recent Democratic debate, candidate Andrew Yang responded to a line of questioning on health-care incentives with the joke, “Now, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” It was a quip that may have seemed innocuous to some in the audience, but it’s not landing with Asian Americans across the country.
It wasn’t the first time Yang has tried to sell himself by calling on ostensibly positive Asian stereotypes. During the previous debate, for example, he claimed that “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math” — by which he meant himself. He even sells a hat in his online store that reads “MATH” and a shirt that reads “I ❤ MATH.”
With such seemingly simple self-deprecating remarks, Yang is reinforcing the model-minority myth — the idea that some populations are substantially better off than others, particularly Asian American communities in the United States. It’s a premise calibrated to make him palatable for non-Asians. But it’s also dangerous and exploitative. While Yang’s campaign purports to be a step forward for Asian Americans, his reliance on stereotypes sets us back, making it harder to grasp the struggles and dilemmas that many in our community face. In the process, he is also reinforcing more overtly negative ideas about other nonwhite communities.
The model-minority myth refers to the perceived higher level of success of a community writ large. It took root in the 1960s, during a crucial turn in U.S. history — the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In the wake of that shift, observers increasingly began to point to Asian American communities as pinnacles of achievement and excellence, of what nonwhite communities “could be.”
Writing in the New York Times in 1966, the sociologist William Petersen coined the term “model minority” to describe the post-World War II rise of Japanese Americans, even in the face of ongoing prejudice. He contrasted their success to that of what he called “problem minorities” (a term that he set in quotation marks that clearly pointed toward black Americans), groups pulled down by oppression to the point where they would greet even equal opportunity with “either self-defeating apathy or a hatred so all-consuming as to be self-destructive.”
Whatever Petersen’s intentions, this contrast exposes the real function of the model-minority myth: It rests not on the laurels of Asian American success, but of black oppression and perceived cultural failure. As the scholar Vijay Prashad puts it in “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity,” the myth’s “implication is that blacks want special treatment and believe themselves to be entitled to something more than other Americans.” That idea ensures that for every scene of protest, every battle for liberation and every march for basic human rights that black Americans have waged in the past few decades, there is a convenient foil to point to. A foil that allows those in a position to do something about injustice to instead ask, “Why can’t you be more like them?”
Yang is repurposing the model-minority myth — used by dominant white powers to divide communities of color and pit Asians against blacks and other “problem minorities” — to curry favor with a broader base of voters to whom he might have otherwise been less palatable. Ironically, by reinforcing the idea that all Asians are doctors or good at math, Yang is erasing the very real issues that communities within the expansive Asian American umbrella must deal with. Although aggregate education levels show that Asian Americans are overperforming in the United States, less than 1 in 5 Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Bhutanese people attain a bachelor’s degree or higher. Across outcomes — poverty, health care and more — there are stark differences within Asian American communities that the model minority myth elides.
Yang’s embrace of the model-minority myth extends beyond everyday rhetoric, also finding a home in his proposed policies. This includes the signature proposal of his campaign, universal basic income. At its core, universal basic income can be seen as a path of upward mobility for those confronted by structural barriers, enabling people to further their education or find better jobs. For Yang, universal basic income also serves as the answer to the impending threat of workplace automation.
However, Yang’s attempt to frame UBI as the answer to other major challenges of our time — including climate change and health care — still relies on the idea that Americans should be able pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a better life for themselves. His plan would give people a choice: If they want to collect $1,000 a month, they have to decline other essential public assistance benefits — from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to disability insurance.
The idea here is that everyone should be able to succeed under the same conditions and with the same kinds of support. But despite his love of math, Yang should know that his own calculations don’t add up: Like the fiction that some minorities can simply get by better than others, his plan ignores the very real systemic barriers to communities of color or those in poverty. Although an additional source of income can surely make a difference in the lives of many Americans, it would not work at the expense of programs Yang wants to cut, which strive to eliminate some of the very real barriers facing Americans.
Nevertheless, Yang seems to believe that with a little help in challenging circumstances, all Americans can be like the highly educated Asian Americans who began to immigrate to the United States after 1965. It’s a fantasy that makes it seem far easier to break the shackles of institutional racism and generational poverty than it ever has been.
If this is hard to recognize, it may be precisely because Yang has embodied the model-minority myth throughout his public persona and campaign. We see this in Yang’s response to Shane Gillis, who has made homophobic and racist comments, particularly directed at Asian Americans, including Yang himself. Instead of echoing the outrage, Yang suggested that we should be “forgiving” to Gillis and offered to “sit down and talk” with the comedian. Yang further compared the relatively subdued anger at anti-Asian “jokes” to the more “immediate and clear” reaction that would have probably ensued had Gillis used the n-word. In effect, Yang is further amplifying oppression Olympics by comparing the discrimination and prejudice faced across communities of color — the very thing the model-minority myth has long worked to spotlight and naturalize.
For every successful Asian American businessman Yang claims to represent, for every Asian American doctor Yang claims to know and for every proclamation of his love of math, Yang deepens the acceptance of the model-minority myth into the collective American consciousness.
If Yang wants to advance Asian American life as he purports to do, he should be working to dismantle the model-minority myth, not activating age-old tropes to connect to voters. He could probably stand to shake things up: Given his dismal poll numbers, his strategy clearly isn’t working, anyway.