My eyes fixed with awe on the sea of waving arms and flashing lights that permeated the television screen. Barack Obama walked across the Grant Park stage in Chicago, acknowledging the crowd. In those two minutes, which felt like an eternity, the magnitude of the moment was apparent: a minority had been elected president of the United States for the first time. Chills ran through my body as I looked at the euphoric faces in the crowd. Amid the chaotic scene, one thought stood out in my seven-year-old mind. How much longer until someone who looks like me becomes President?
11 years later, I can just barely envision such a scene playing out. At the very thought, I feel a giddy excitement reminiscent of that night in 2008, and it can be traced to the astonishing rise of Andrew Yang. He is the first Asian American to run for president since Hiram Fong, who ran in the 1960s, yet he has not been short on support. Among prospective Democratic voters, Yang currently ranks as high as sixth in national polling and fourth at Yale. It’s quite a feat for a campaign that amassed a radical uptick in support following an appearance on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast.
Despite the success, Yang’s campaign has been a missed opportunity for the empowerment of the Asian American community in politics. Yang is widely viewed — and he himself identifies — more as an economist or entrepreneur than a member of the Asian American community. In an election where women, people of color and queer candidates are vocal about social issues and how their backgrounds relate to central values, Yang is unusually quiet.
In a time when many denounce the infusion of identity into politics, Yang’s focus on ideas is not problematic — in fact, it’s quite refreshing. However, what has been discouraging is that Yang has disappointed in his few attempts to engage with the Asian American community. Whenever he does bring attention to his Asian identity, it is often in the form of stereotypical jokes that seem more strategic than authentic. He commonly touts his math skills and his connection to many doctors, stereotypes that have hurt Asians for years. And, most often, it’s a white audience that laughs uncomfortably at his jokes; the tropes he uses only feed into our status as model minorities who are confined to specific niches.
His approach may speak more to the fact that he’s trying his best to win widespread national support — a completely fair point. But for the most part, Yang has not demonstrated a genuine pride in his identity. And for the first Asian American presidential candidate in five decades, it’s disappointing.
On the other hand, Yang’s campaign has shed light on structural problems of political disengagement in the Asian American community. Even with a large increase from previous years, Asian American voter participation was 49 percent in the 2016 election, trailing that of white people (65.3 percent) and black people (59.4 percent) significantly. We too often fixate on our professional careers, a critique that may be applied to all groups. Further, Asians are generally not targeted by political campaigns, which feeds a sense of detachment from politics. As a group that is not very active and trails black and Hispanic Americans in size, it’s not surprising that Yang hasn’t spoken much about his Asian American identity. A candidate can only do so much with the limited time he has.
As a community, however, we have the ability to drive Asian political engagement. At Yale, we have no excuse to shy away from education and involvement. Comments like “I’m not interested in politics” or “I don’t know, I’m going to med school” can no longer pass unchallenged. This criticism is not exclusive to the Asian American community. However, for the fastest growing demographic in the nation, it is particularly important that Asian Americans confront our aversion to politics. With a growing population, we need to enter the national picture as contributors to important discussions on education, economics, labor, race and culture — areas where our voices are too often unheard.
The solution doesn’t need to be radical. We can attend more speaker events, talk more about politics in our circles and increase outreach to friends and family. Only by becoming more informed and willing to participate in conversations can we advance from where we currently are — seen as the complacent model minority that does not care enough about politics.
In the course of Andrew Yang’s campaign, it’s not surprising that he hasn’t spoken much to his Asian American identity given our disengagement. But for all his shortcomings, it’s still undoubtedly inspiring to see him soaring above all expectations. I still think back to that evening in 2008, when I felt possibilities enter my mind that I had never considered before. With Yang, I feel the compass has moved; the hope of increased representation in government seems more realistic than before.
But that’s not enough. Asian Americans are still neglected as the forgotten minority. Yang’s campaign, nonetheless, can serve as a spark for greater political participation in our community. With an Asian American at the forefront of the national landscape, the current moment is a call to action. Now is the time for Asian Americans to step up in the domain of politics.
Edward Seol is a first-year in Berkeley College. Contact him at email@example.com .