Current Affairs

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Andrew Yang and the Model Minority Myth

How entrepreneur and presidential candidate Andrew Yang embodies a deeply pernicious “model minoritism.”

You may have heard the term “model minority” before. It’s a label used to describe certain people, mainly Asian, who work at Google and send their kids to Harvard. Crystallizing during the 1960s and Cold War anticommunism, the model minority stereotype shifted depictions of Asians away from the “yellow peril” (the racist fantasy of East Asian hordes coming to take away the jobs of white workers). Instead, Asian-Americans were recast as “domestic exemplars, upwardly mobile, and politically docile,” in the words of historian Ellen Wu. The model minority represented something safe and non-threatening to white people, distinct from the “un-model” minorities, who were supposed to learn lessons from the model minority’s obedience, disinterest in politics, and material success.

But the “model minority” concept has become more than just a stereotype, more than just a myth that social acceptance can be earned through hard work. It’s seeped into the minds of the very people it was supposed to diminish. At this point, it’s become a genuine ideology, a distinct set of principles. Call it model-minoritism.

Speaking from personal experience, the core values of model minoritism are as follows: stay in school, stay out of politics, and make money. A belief in meritocracy is ubiquitous. It is an article of faith that one obtains advancement by doing well on tests. Since meritocracy goes hand-in-hand with technocracy, members of the Asian-American model minority often end up in fields requiring high technical proficiency like law, medicine, and engineering. Not coincidentally, these fields tend to offer high salaries that grant access to comfortable, middle-class lifestyles.

No one who practices model minoritism thinks of it as a distinct ideology. You won’t find any philosophers of model minoritism; it exists more as praxis than theory. It is not a radical ethos, which is unsurprising when the goal is integration into the upper rungs of the middle class, if not the elite. There is an unwavering faith in meritocracy and technocracy, as well as a preference for socioeconomic stability and security. Self-abnegation is key; pleasures are best deferred. There is a disdain for the oppressed and a corresponding acceptance of, if not fealty towards, the ruling class. Solidarity is not something that is discussed, or considered particularly viable.

Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign may seem improbable, even something of a wacky libertarian gimmick. But we can’t miss the extent to which Yang is a practitioner of model minoritism. Always an academic high achiever, Yang attended Phillips Exeter Academy (an elite prep school whose famous alumni include Franklin Pierce and Mark Zuckerberg), went on to Brown University, and graduated from Columbia Law School, before entering the workforce as a corporate lawyer.

This is where Yang departs from the traditional model minority track: After five months, he left his corporate law job. In 2006, Yang took over a test-prep company and sold it to Kaplan three years later for a sum reportedly in the millions (Yang won’t say exactly how much). He went on to found Venture for America in 2011, an entrepreneurship nonprofit modeled after Teach for America. The Obama White House dubbed Yang a “Champion for Change” and a “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship,” and Yang became a regular on the thought leader circuit. His present net worth is estimated at $3 million. From a certain perspective, Yang is living the American dream. His very existence seems to give credence to the model minority myth: Through hard work and deference to status quo politics, you too can be successful in American society, regardless of race.

But the model minority myth hides the privilege that often boosts its success stories. Yang is the son of parents who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the ’60s, having benefited from the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. This statute gave preference to immigrants who were well-educated and would pursue professional careers. Yang’s father went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics and worked at General Electric and IBM, while his mother earned a master’s degree in statistics. My parents, also from Taiwan, had a similar experience. After immigrating for graduate school, they were able to obtain well-compensated employment, which made it easier for them to become U.S. citizens.

But many Asian-Americans had very different immigration journeys. Though Asian-Americans as a whole have the highest median household income in the United States, the reality is more complicated. There is a yawning income inequality gap among Asian-Americans. In 2016, according to Pew, Asian-Americans in the top 10 percent of the income distribution earned almost 11 times as much as Asian-Americans in the bottom 10 percent. Around 11 percent of Asian-Americans live at the poverty level. These inequalities primarily fall along ethnic and national lines. For example, Cambodians, Bhutanese, and Hmong, who are also much more likely to not have a college degree, tend to be at the bottom of the income distribution, whereas highly-educated Indians and Taiwanese are at the top of the income distribution. The model minority stereotype diverts attention away from these communities’ suffering and needs, while reinforcing negative stereotypes about Asian-Americans as humorless robots who are good at math. Despite the important work being done to shed these stereotypes and allow Asian-American communities to be understood in all their socioeconomic and cultural complexity, the model minority myth persists.

And Andrew Yang is doing his best to make sure it persists. On the campaign trail, Yang likes to say, “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” Yang likes math so much that his campaign sells ball caps with “MATH” emblazoned on the front. He has promised to be the first president to deliver the State of the Union address with the help of a PowerPoint, a line that elicited loud applause from the unbearable nerds in his audience. During a May 2019 rally in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, Yang drew huge cheers with phrases like “I looked at the numbers!” and “I did the math!” In a Fox News interview, Yang said, “I’m Asian, so you know I love to work.” Later, at the September 2019 Democratic debate, he joked: “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.”

While he has been somewhat critical of meritocracy, particularly standardized tests, his frequent repetition of model minority tropes is not incidental to his politics. On the contrary, Yang’s model-minoritism is inseparable from his wider political project.

Yang’s deployment of model minority tropes reinforces a discourse that cements white supremacy and draws fault lines between the people of color who share the lower tiers of the racial hierarchy. One essential aspect of the model minority is its inextricable relationship with an anti-black ideology. In her book, The Color of Success, Ellen Wu describes how conservative Asian-Americans in the postwar era worked to present a uniform image of Asian-Americans as a successful and politically tractable group. The goal was to portray Asian-Americans as “definitively not-black,” as Wu puts it. White elites sought to use Asians as a foil against blacks, particularly during the civil rights movement and urban uprisings of the 1960s, and these conservative Asians were all too happy to oblige. Asians came to be seen as bootstrapping success stories, free from crime and poverty, and, most importantly, silent on political issues. Of course, this caricature was untrue, but the model minority was easily deployed as a racial wedge. In light of this history, it is unacceptable for a self-described progressive like Yang to gleefully embrace the most cliched tropes about model minorities, and offer them up as reassuring evidence of his harmlessness.  That Yang would so willfully make himself a useful idiot to white supremacy should concern anyone who cares about the damaging effects of racism.

Unsurprisingly, Yang is also more than happy to uphold capitalism. Part and parcel of Yang’s model minoritism is his vision of smart technocratic governance. He likes to boast about the comprehensive policy platform on his campaign website, demonstrating his seriousness as a policy wonk. Throughout his campaign, Yang has framed his approach to politics as rational, data-driven, and interested in problem-solving. When, during the aforementioned May 2019 rally in Washington Square Park, he shouted, “I looked at the numbers,” he meant the numbers for jobs that would be eliminated by automation. Yang loves math, even when the math is grim. 

Nothing captures Yang’s commitment to wonky expertise more than his signature universal basic income (UBI) plan, which he has dubbed the “Freedom Dividend.” He’s pitched it as a bold intervention: a Plan to end all plans. Under the Freedom Dividend, every United States citizen over the age of 18 would receive $1,000 per month from the government. Yang, echoing libertarian rhetoric, stresses that people, not the government, would get to choose how to spend their $1,000. This, Yang believes, will jumpstart an economy that would be otherwise rendered impotent by automation-induced unemployment. Trotting out his beloved statistics, Yang says the Freedom Dividend will “grow the economy by $2.5 trillion in eight years.” Yang is less eager to talk about how he will pay for the Freedom Dividend, but simple research reveals a convoluted variety of revenue sources, including a value-added tax (VAT), a tax on high-income individuals and pollution, and, most worryingly, welfare cuts. People on welfare would be forced to choose between receiving the full $1,000 or their full welfare benefits. If this seems regressive and punitive to the poor, that’s because it is.

The Freedom Dividend reveals a core aspect of Yang’s politics: He knows capitalism is in crisis, and seeks a capitalism with a “floor that people cannot fall beneath.” As he is quick to emphasize, Yang prefers a “human-centered” capitalism. He brags on his campaign website that the Freedom Dividend represents neither socialism nor communism, adding that the Freedom Dividend “actually fits seamlessly into capitalism.” But Yang knows his proposed income floor of $12,000 a year is not enough to live on (as Nathan J. Robinson wrote in this publication). Instead of implementing a more direct jobs guarantee to counter job automation, Yang would rather inject cash into the economy via UBI and allow the market to operate as before.

Yang is very opposed to a federal jobs guarantee, which he claims will “lea[d] to armies of dystopian laborers forced to do make-work to survive amid a growing mass of bureaucrats.” He also says a jobs guarantee, unlike a UBI, would not compensate the care work done by parents. However, Yang shows his hand when he cites his concern that a jobs guarantee would result in “an inability to transition into private employment afterwards.” In short, he doesn’t like the fact that under a government jobs guarantee, the private sector would no longer have a large pool of surplus workers to exploit, which means they could no longer drive down wages. The Freedom Dividend is not meant to replace employment, and workers would still be forced to sell their labor to capitalists. All it means is that the current system will be tweaked to mitigate some of the worst harms of capitalism. Yang’s plan is an instrument of ruling class power that preserves the class system. It is a dole to appease the people without surrendering elite control over the means of production.

This makes sense—Yang is the elite. The Freedom Dividend merely reflects the vision of a man protecting the interests of his class. For instance, though Yang has offered nominal criticism of Jeff Bezos for paying too little in taxes, he does not extend his critique to the fact that Bezos has amassed obscene wealth by exploiting the labor of thousands of workers. Along with his tech mogul pals, Yang is fine with the existence of billionaires (Elon Musk endorsed him). Despite his promises to give Americans a free 1,000 a month, Yang is no friend to the working class.

The clearest window into Yang’s class politics is found in his campaign book, The War on Normal People. There, Yang conjures up a hypothetical scenario in which truck drivers are laid off after their employers introduce automated, self-driving trucks. The unemployed truck drivers organize a protest that balloons throughout several states in the South and Midwest. In Yang’s imagination, the country subsequently devolves into chaos and violence, as white nationalist militias get involved and the Californian secessionist movement gains steam. Order is eventually restored—whew—at great cost.

Yang has no great love for unions in general, characterizing Bernie Sanders’ pro-union policies as obsolete. It is clear that he finds working-class militancy intolerable and solidarity frightening. A laid-off working class satiated by $1,000 a month is infinitely preferable for him.

But as it happens, Yang has misdiagnosed the automation issue in the first place. He often cites a McKinsey report that states a third of American workers “will lose their jobs to automation by 2030.” However, the report itself contradicts Yang, stating those workers can find new jobs with appropriate investment in infrastructure and education (yes, this is coming from McKinsey, noted corporate enabler). There’s further evidence that the low demand for labor that Yang addresses is the result of overall economic stagnation, not a robo-apocalypse. The problem, as usual, is capitalism.

Attacking capitalism would mean attacking the status quo, and Yang demonstrates no desire to do that whatsoever. He shows little interest, for example, in challenging white supremacy. When it comes to his frequent references to model minority tropes, Yang refuses to apologize and brushes off his remarks as jokes. He claims he knows about model minority stereotypes and does not intend to speak for all Asian-Americans, as these jokes are simply how he expresses his personality. But Yang knows perfectly well what he’s doing, as he himself has argued that making these jokes “was and is the best way that I can compete.” The strategy is quite simple: By deploying a nerdy image, Yang believes he can ingratiate himself to white audiences that, in his view, would otherwise feel uneasy about an Asian candidate. In other words, Yang is willing to self-deprecate to win, even though doing so requires demeaning other Asian-Americans.

Yang is not alone in thinking that his embrace of the model minority myth and avoidance of “identity politics” is a sound method to win over voters. Hua Hsu, in the New Yorker, says Yang’s embrace of stereotypes has made him a “surprisingly effective politician,” in spite of his progressive Asian-American critics.In the New York Times, Jay Caspian Kang praises Yang for his “refusal to engage in polite identity politics,” implying that the progressive Asian-Americans critics of Yang are aloof elites, more interested in complaining about the miscasting of Asians by Hollywood than the plight of Rust Belt workers. Wesley Yang strikes a similar note in the Washington Post, hailing Andrew Yang for not being a “scold on race” and chastising progressive Asian-American critics for being too sensitive. Echoing Kang’s comment on supposedly out-of-touch Asian-Americans, W. Yang says, “[M]embers of the best-educated and highest-earning group in America shouldn’t linger on victimhood.”

These writers are mistaken. Andrew Yang is engaging in identity politics. All politics, after all, is identity politics of some sort. The difference here is that Yang panders to conservative white people. Yang only became famous after appearing on the podcasts of Sam Harris and Joe Rogan, who are associated with the reactionary Intellectual Dark Web. Furthermore, Yang enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only Democratic presidential candidate who has been published in Quillette, where he made overtures to unemployed white gamers. More recently, Yang publicly forgave racist comedian Shane Gillis after the latter had called him slurs, which no doubt burnished his reputation as a politician who spurns “political correctness” and opposes “cancel culture.”

Though Yang is not a white supremacist, and has categorically rejected the support of white supremacists, his casual tweeting about declining birth rates among whites has drawn the attention of Richard Spencer and other alt-right figures. What’s more, the virulence of white supremacy does not bother him tremendously. In an interview with Mehdi Hasan on the Deconstructed podcast, Yang was asked if he regretted attracting racists like Richard Spencer. Yang replied that unemployed truck drivers and neo-Nazis are facing the same problem: “a disintegrating way of life.” While adding that he could not read anyone’s thoughts, Yang said, “I’m imagining that they are actually linking the economic interest of the white working class to their ideology.” Earlier in the same interview, Yang argued Trump won in 2016 because “we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, all the swing states he needed to win.” Yang seems to think white nationalism and Trump’s rise are a result of the automation crisis hitting the white working class (a crisis, seemingly, that did not affect the non-white working class). Rather than viewing these phenomena in the context of the long history of racism fundamental to the United States, Yang appears to believe a monthly $1,000 check will solve everything.

Yang’s willingness to pander to whites is closely linked to his internalized model minoritism, with its deference to authority and its willingness to accept the existence of a racial hierarchy. As discussed above, the concept of the model minority is racist and classist. Ellen Wu notes that Daniel Moynihan, Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1966, “defended his controversial claim that the too-strong emphasis on matriarchy in black ‘culture’ was to blame for the “deterioration” of African American communities by pointing to the ‘enlightened family life’ of the relatively well-to-do Chinese.” Wu also cites a U.S. News & World Report article that compared the allegedly self-sufficient Chinese-Americans to African-Americans, whom the article attacks for demanding government aid. Thus, Wu says, the U.S. white ruling class weaponized essentialist conceptions of Asian “culture” against the radical demands of blacks in the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, many Asian-Americans collaborated with this effort. In pandering to white people, Yang associates himself with this unpleasant history of collaboration with the ruling class.

Andrew Yang promises a revolution that isn’t. He offers a hollow criticism of an economic system for which his UBI will only be a superficial fix. Notwithstanding his talk of “not left, not right, but forward,” Yang just wants a slightly less cruel, better-managed capitalism. There is no separating his model minoritism, with its lack of working-class solidarity, from his pro-capitalist politics that will keep him and his friends in charge.

Despite being Taiwanese-American, like Andrew Yang, I feel ambivalent about seeing his campaign unfold. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a vicarious thrill in seeing an Asian-American polling better than several established politicians in the Democratic primary. But there’s a reason why I support Bernie Sanders, not Andrew Yang. As nice as it would be to have an Asian-American president, such a person must be an unapologetic anti-racist and a genuine leftist, one who refuses to accept racial hierarchies and who is committed to building a mass movement of all working people. Yang is not that candidate.

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