As perhaps the face of Asian-American politics in this current election cycle, Andrew Yang had a lot of things he could say about COVID-19, the economic impact on minorities and the racism that Asians face across North America and Europe.
Instead, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, Yang repeats every toxic assumption about the necessity for Asians to be exceptional and visible during this time of crisis. It’s just another depressing reminder that when the going gets tough, Asians are expected to be tough and get going — a view and attitude steeped in hundreds of years of racist policies, social stereotypes and casual injustice.
Yang didn’t literally say the words “model minority,” but he didn’t need to. The headline starts off strong enough: “We Asian Americans Are Not the Virus, But We Can Be Part of the Cure,” which, yeah, obviously! Then Yang tells a story of feeling “otherized” as he watches three middle-aged men whisper while looking at him strangely at the supermarket — an experience that’s becoming more and more common today. He adds that he’s felt self-conscious, “even ashamed,” about his Asian heritage (despite the privilege he has today) at different points in his life. Yang acknowledges the swell of racist attacks, and even observes that calls from Asians to the not-for-profit Crisis Text Line have shot up 160 percent.
But then this narrative turns, sharply, when he proposes what we can do about it: “I’m an entrepreneur. In general, negative responses don’t work. I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. But saying ‘Don’t be racist toward Asians’ won’t work.”
It’s true that research suggests racist feelings can actually rise in people who are faced with aggressive and negative feedback. The history of racism in America, especially, is so deeply rooted and virulent that experts agree it’s going to take a lot more than criticism and shaming to end modern prejudice. But Yang doesn’t talk about the need for media to highlight empathetic stories about Asians during the crisis, or caution politicians about bandying terms like “China Virus,” or call on regular people to step up and condemn any racist attitudes in public. Instead, he puts the weight of this abuse on Asian shoulders.
“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis,” Yang writes. “We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
The backlash unfolded quickly, which is fair given that this is an astonishingly, stupefying bad take, backed by anecdotes rooted in false equivalencies. Yang notes that UCLA basketball player Natalie Chou says she felt better wearing her alma mater’s merch, because the association “reminded people that she was an American.” He also draws parallels to Japanese-American military service during World War II, noting that the same people who were targets of racism stepped up to literally die for America in a foreign land. Both of these examples stress the need for Asians to display loyalty to a country and institutions that have been ambivalent at best to this massive diaspora of diverse people. This is a retelling of the model-minority myth with a punitive edge: You belong here? Well, prove it. (No matter that Asians are already on the front lines of trying to help their communities.)
It’s the same nationalist bullshit we paraded around as “patriotism” in the aftermath of 9/11, ignoring the triggering of rampant, long-lasting racism against Muslims (and Sikhs, because why not?). It’s the hateful energy woven deep into ideals about the “good immigrant” who deserves a place in America, versus the “bad hombres” who break rules and deserve to rot in a New Mexico jail cell. It’s the with-us-or-against-us attitude that made half the country erupt in anger like rabid dogs over Colin Kaepernick kneeling over racial injustice. It’s the implication that if you don’t love America and show it now, you shouldn’t only expect prejudice — you might even deserve it, just a little.
Even beyond the physical and verbal attacks happening in person, if you’re an Extremely Online Asian® like me, it’s so obvious to see how dog-whistle racism feeds into explicit racial hate. These people like to claim it’s just a matter of pragmatism and “calling it like it is.” But what I see is a thread that winds from Donald Trump’s insistence on name-checking China during pandemic updates, to newspapers screaming “WILL THEY EVER LEARN?,” to randoms on Twitter declaring that we disgusting, bat-eating Asians basically had it coming.
“The best thing that could happen for Asians would be to get this virus under control so it isn’t a problem anymore. Then any racism would likely fade,” Yang writes in his op-ed.
Fade how, exactly? Perhaps it’ll just recede back into the shadows, if we’re lucky. But it’s a flawed notion that Asians will be alright if we merely work hard and show off our American-ness and wait for this pandemic to blow over. The COVID-19 pandemic is showing how far the U.S. can fall despite constant claims that it’s the best nation in the world. I guess I’m just not in the mood to wave a flag and pretend that the racism we’re witnessing today is merely a symptom, rather than the disease.