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Politics

Why Andrew Yang's views split Asian Americans in New York

Some of his supporters are turning against him in race for city mayor

Former U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang greets New York City Police Department officers at an event announcing his candidacy for New York City Mayor in upper Manhattan in New York on January 14, 2021.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Andrew Yang, a 46-year-old entrepreneur and former presidential candidate who is running for New York mayor, has been a political star among many Asian Americans.

But the more the Taiwanese American tweets and speaks, the more some of his supporters start to shake their heads. From a controversial opinion piece in response to rising anti-Asian hate to his pro-police stance and a tweet about Israel and Palestine, Yang has drawn a backlash from his progressive supporters.

Earlier this month, counter protesters chased Yang in Brooklyn's Park Slope, where he was scheduled to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally for Daunte Wright, a Black man fatally shot by a police officer in April. The protesters held signs that read "Hedge Fund Mayor" and "Don't Rank Yang" after Yang advocated the recruitment of new police officers in the second mayoral debate the night before.

This year's Democratic primary on June 22 will be the city's first major use of ranked choice voting, where voters list up to five candidates in order of preference. The winner must get over 50% of support, according to The Wall Street Journal. If nobody hits the mark, the candidate with the fewest votes will get eliminated, and those votes will be redistributed to the voters' second choices. This process will continue until the last two candidates stand. Early voting began on June 12.

"The biggest chant I heard was 'No new cops' which I think goes against what I'm hearing from most New Yorkers," Yang said to reporters, as seen in a video posted on Twitter. "Most New Yorkers, if anything, want more cops, and we need to replace the thousands of police officers who are retiring. I'm very clear that 'Defund the Police' is the wrong approach."

Last Monday, the Captains Endowment Association, which is the New York police union that once supported Eric Adams, endorsed Yang instead, according to a NY1 report.

Yang was leading the race in March with 32% support, ahead of Scott Stringer and Adams, according to a poll published by Emerson College and PIX11 News. But now Yang has dropped to fourth, with 14% of respondents backing him, behind Adams, Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia, according to PIX11.

Yang's fall in popularity is evident and it throbs at a dilemma among Asian American voters. Crime is a top priority for them, followed by housing, according to the poll. Given that anti-Asian hate crimes are rising, some feel that electing an Asian mayor is vital while others doubt Yang's understanding of the social issues at hand.

"I think for us first generation Chinese Americans, it's great that Yang could stand on the stage of the presidential election and now run for NYC mayor, I think we should support him to keep going," said Wu Yiping, 58, a community leader in New York who was a former Trump supporter and now an independent. "To have an Asian face in the run for mayor, whether he's elected or not, it's important for us. At least it opens a window, if not a door, for aspiring Asian Americans who want to get into politics."

Wu said Yang has been pretty consistent on his policies, especially with the $1,000 he has promised to give every adult a month in universal basic income.

"His policies perhaps don't work for the more progressive people, but in reality, we can't just leap, change comes little by little," Wu told Nikkei Asia in Mandarin. "It may affect his support, but we need cops to maintain stability, most people in New York need safety right now."

"Yang has chosen a moderate lane, which we can support," Wu said.

Andrew Yang arrives at the Democratic primary debate in New York on June 16.   © Reuters

There are roughly 970,000 eligible Asian American voters in New York and the AAPI population size is over 1.8 million, which accounts for 9.4% of New York's total population, according to data collected by Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote in 2020.

Yang has won endorsements from many elected Asian Americans, including congresswoman Grace Meng, state assembly member Ron Kim, state senator John C. Liu and city council member Margaret Chin. The AAPI Victory Fund has also endorsed him.

However, some Asian Americans are opposing Yang's bid for mayor with an open letter signed by almost 800 people.

"Although many of us have been organizing for more APIA representation in New York City politics, representation alone is simply not enough," they wrote. "As the 2021 mayoral candidate with the most name recognition, your track record, actions, and proposed policies concern us, as they do not uplift marginalized APIA, BIPOC, immigrant, and working class members of this city."

The letter listed eight reasons not to vote for Yang, including his controversial op-eds, pro-police stance, and policies on housing, education and tax.

One of the signees is Hailie Kim, who is running for city council in Queens. Kim said she was "pretty proud" when she first saw Yang on the debate stage during the presidential election, but Yang has made comments that don't align with her vision.

Kim wants Yang to understand "the importance of prioritizing public schools over charter schools" and the hardship that unlicensed street vendors go through.

"He has said things about street vendors needing to be more regulated. I think he and I should speak to a few people who would actually be able to allow him to put a face to the kinds of things he is saying when he makes comments like that. And then he'll understand why that might not be in line with a vision for a more equitable New York City," said Kim. "[We need to] make sure that we protect these people rather than framing it as them being a blight on our city."

Yang's views on policing have also divided voters.

"I think [there's] a whole group of well-educated and professional Asian Americans who really like what [Yang] said, they look at him as an Asian American finally doing something in the political arena that's getting attention," said a friend of Yang and a veteran in New York City politics, who asked not to be named. "If you ask the first generation Chinese Americans in Flushing, they want more police. But the younger progressive Asian Americans, they don't want more police."

Kim from Queens said the police's funding could be more useful elsewhere.

"[NYPD] is working with a $2 billion budget that we need to actually redistribute in order to fund things like public education," Kim told Nikkei Asia. "I would love to have a billion dollars go into an actual jobs program and create what would be approximately 25,000 jobs and in the public sector for people who are otherwise going to be on unemployment. And these are the ways that I think our city should be utilizing our resources and not into more police."

Harvey Dong, an Asian American studies professor at University of California, Berkeley, said that Yang's approach may be oversimplifying the problems.

"I think he might see it too much from a tech point of view that you can fix things easily without looking at the bigger picture," said Dong. "What about the police brutality cases? What about the mental health cases that are out there? Unemployment, all these things that are creating this toxic atmosphere."

On top of policy, comments and opinion pieces Yang has offered did not sit well with many Asian Americans.

In May, Yang tweeted that he stood with Israel and "condemn the Hamas terrorists" after Palestine bombed Israel. That tweet earned Yang praise from Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Stephen Miller.

"Minari" actor Steven Yeun, who endorsed Yang in 2019, tweeted at Yang, "If you want to be nuanced. This is definitely not it. Stop." Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also criticized him, and "Crazy Rich Asian" actor Henry Golding called Yang a "twat."

Yang apologized the next day, saying that his tweet was "overly simplistic."

Hailie Kim, who is running for city council in Queens. Kim said she was "pretty proud" when she first saw Yang on the debate stage during the presidential election, but Yang has made comments that don't align with her vision. (Screenshot from Hailie Kim's YouTube page) 

Yang has been criticized for leaning into the Asian stereotypes such as the "MATH" hat. He wrote a controversial op-ed titled "We Asian Americans are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure" last April in The Washington Post. It struck a nerve with many Asian Americans as the piece urged them to "show our American-ness" in combating COVID-19 and anti-Asian racism.

"I think the model minority stereotype, the use of it, the way that [Yang] does, is harmful because it creates this idea that Asian Americans don't have to protest, they just work hard and they don't have any problems," said Dong. "But in the meantime, there're lots of concerns about police brutality and immigration rights being taken away and it separates Asian Americans from those problems. I think he needs to address that more strongly."

Kim Neal, chief adviser for AAPI-GNY Affairs at Yang's campaign and a Taiwanese American herself, told Nikkei Asia that although people feel proud to be Asian Americans nowadays and feel better about being one, "it's not easy because this is something very psychological."

When talking to the AAPI communities, Neal said that Yang's campaign has tried to address concerns over his op-ed.

"We try to tell people to think from his standpoint, we talked about how we've all been discriminated against [when we were] growing up. Let's think about when a good person [is] being bullied, the first thing they think is 'Did I do anything wrong?'" explained Neal. "Some people said they get it, because when we first immigrated here, many of us also wanted to be part of the mainstream."

Self-acceptance is a process that many Asian Americans have gone through, especially over the past year when anti-Asian sentiment runs rampant. Neal said it can be very emotional and some people don't like to talk about it.

"He likes to show people his happy side, he doesn't like to show people his sad side," Neal said. "And for him, showing the sad side is way too private."

The veteran of New York politics said that Asian Americans' mixed views on Yang "show how not monolithic the Asian American community is."

"Because the Asian American community is so diverse, I don't know if there is the right Asian American to take a mantle on the political front," he said. "I think the bigger question that begs to be asked is should we really define one size fits all, or do we just see more Asian Americans occupying different lanes of the political spectrum and then identify with somebody who is Asian American and fits their political needs."

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