Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN) Andrew Yang’s i nsurgent campaign for President of the United States propelled him from relative obscurity into the national spotlight, as the leader of a burgeoning movement of “Yang Gangers” focused on mainstreaming the concept of Universal Basic Income : giving every adult in the US a “freedom dividend,” in Yang’s words, of $1000 a month. In the era of massive Covid-19 stimulus, Yang’s belief in UBI has rapidly gone from political fantasy to a pragmatic policy notion.
Now, as the head of an advocacy organization called Humanity Forward , Yang is backing UBI-friendly candidates and instituting UBI pilot programs in New York State and elsewhere. But the “all humans” dimension of his message has occasionally stumbled when facing real-world social and cultural divides, particularly those related to race.
This was evident both during his campaign, which faced criticism from within and beyond the Asian community for how it negotiated racial incidents and stereotypes, and more recently after Yang wrote an April 1 op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he seemed to suggest that Asian Americans needed to act “more American” to avoid racial attacks and harassment. Yang agreed to sit down with me for a conversation via Twitter direct message to discuss life after his campaign, and his philosophies on how to address anti-Asian bigotry and bridge America’s racial divide.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Jeff Yang: Thank you for doing this, Andrew. Do you mind if I begin by asking what ultimately led you to suspend your campaign, and what your first thoughts were about what you’d want to do next?
Andrew Yang: I thought that I’d be in the race the whole time, because I was running on a set of ideas I cared deeply about, and solutions I thought the country desperately needed. But my advisors sat me down in New Hampshire and told me I’d have a better chance to advance my agenda if I bowed out when it was clear I wasn’t going to win.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jeff: That’s a tough decision to have to make.
Andrew: It’s particularly tough when you have so many people who believed in you. I went out to Nevada to thank supporters and staff members, and people were distraught. Tears were shed. But I told them we are still going to be fighting for the same ideas, just in new ways. It’s one reason why I formed my new organization, Humanity Forward, immediately afterwards. I wanted to continue to channel the energy of my campaign into (pursuing) Universal Basic Income and other ideas that were key to my presidential run.
Jeff: That was going to be my next question: When you say “advance my agenda,” what are the key beats that you see as your prioritized objectives? UBI, for sure, but what else? And how will Humanity Forward seek to address that agenda?
Andrew: We have an economy that stopped working for people long ago. We’ve had record corporate profits and stock prices for years. What else are at record highs? Financial insecurity, We have an economy that stopped working for people long ago. We’ve had record corporate profits and stock prices for years. What else are at record highs? Financial insecurity, anxiety , depression, drug overdoses, suicides student loan and consumer indebtedness . It’s a mess. We need to rewrite the rules of our economy to reflect how people are doing, instead of how big companies are doing. That starts with Universal Basic Income but is much bigger and more profound.
To me, GDP and stock prices should be a small part of a constellation of measurements, where we prioritize health, childhood success rates and environmental sustainability as true measures of our economy. This has become all the more pressing with the coronavirus crisis. We were in bad shape before. Now, millions of Americans are losing their livelihoods, and many of the jobs we are losing will not come back.
JUST WATCHED How $1,000 a month got Andrew Yang this far Replay More Videos … MUST WATCH How $1,000 a month got Andrew Yang this far 04:17
Americans are getting stimulus checks right now. I’m sure they will feel what we all feel — a sense of relief that they can put food on the table. It will make people stronger, healthier and more able to adhere to public safety recommendations. It will improve their optimism for the future. I hope Congress makes the stimulus checks ongoing. People need them badly.
Jeff: I do think — and I’ve said as much — that you were prescient when it came to what Universal Basic Income represents as far as a kind of fiscal, social and even cultural security in a time of literally universal crisis.
To pivot a little, though: Your emphasis is “humanity,” but as an Asian American, you’ve since been asked to take on the role of community leader. Would you say there’s a tension between representing a “needs of all” perspective versus the “needs of us”?
Andrew: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m very proud to be the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat. I agree that the issues I ran on were universal. Robots and AI don’t care about who you are when they displace you. I think fighting to solve problems that affect everyone elevates everyone. But I certainly feel a responsibility to do what I can to represent Asian Americans when Trump tries to racialize the coronavirus to distract from his mishandling of this crisis. That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’m very proud to be the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat. I agree that the issues I ran on were universal. Robots and AI don’t care about who you are when they displace you. I think fighting to solve problems that affect everyone elevates everyone. But I certainly feel a responsibility to do what I can to represent Asian Americans when Trump tries to racialize the coronavirus to distract from his mishandling of this crisis. Casting it as “the Chinese virus” framed it as a foreign threat, instead of a pandemic of the type that experts have been warning about for years.
Jeff: Your recognition of the impact of that framing was personalized after you yourself encountered what felt like racialized resentment (as detailed in the Washington Post op-ed). Can you share your thoughts on how that made you feel and what (action) you think is necessary so others aren’t similarly exposed to bigotry, or worse?
Andrew: It is heartbreaking It is heartbreaking what is happening to Asian Americans around the country. Any hostility I’ve experienced is a pale shadow of what others are experiencing.
First, it would be very helpful to have a president who is not trying to distract from his own failures by racializing a disease. Second, we should shine a light on the phenomenal work people are doing every day to keep us safe. Asian Americans are disproportionately represented in health care and are among the people who are risking the most every day. Third, we should all be doing all we can to help each other. People are suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.
It’s a very difficult time, and if you have the capacity to help, you should. That sense of togetherness is what we need right now.
Jeff: One key thing that Asian Americans fear is that this disease underscores the blur that often occurs between Asians in Asia and Asians here in the US. Can you talk a little about that?
Andrew: It has often been difficult for many Americans to distinguish Chinese people from Chinese Americans, from Asian Americans. This is the distinction we have to help people make. Do we have a legitimate problem with the Chinese government not being transparent about the depth of the crisis? 100% yes. But a problem with the Chinese government is different from a problem with Chinese people, and certainly with Asian Americans who are a world away.
To the extent that this crisis has grave racial implications, it extends most to black communities and other communities of color. In Michigan , black people are 14% of the population and 40% of the deaths.
Jeff: Yes, there’s the real racial dimension to this crisis — the disproportionate impact on people of color and especially black Americans — and there’s the falsified, insidious and hateful one, which is the association of the source of the disease with a race of people.
This isn’t new. American populism seems to turn against Asians, and especially Asian immigrants, every generation or so, fueled by the threat of global competition or the social rise of Asians in the US. We see this going back to the 1800s, and continuing through the Chinese Exclusion, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the backlash against Japan in the 1970s-1980s, and then, sinophobia in the 1990s and now. Fighting to simply be seen as American is almost a quintessential aspect of the Asian American experience. And yet, it shouldn’t be on us to have to wage that fight. What, if anything, do you think can break that cycle of the endless struggle we face to “belong”?
Andrew: I ran for president in part to show that there are no boundaries to what we can accomplish. I love this country dearly. My family came here to create a better life for me and my brother and it worked. My goal is to do all I can for the country that has given so much to me.
I understand our past, but I believe most Americans want the same thing — a better future for ourselves and our families. People are suffering. People are dying. You’re not the virus. I’m not the virus. If we come together, we have the chance to emerge a stronger, more just country. I’ll fight for that.
Jeff: Can we talk about the campaigns you’re helping with to address the anti-Asian racism that’s emerged in the era of coronavirus? What are they, and how do you see them working to change hearts and minds and protect at-risk Asians?
Andrew: I’m involved with a number of campaigns. The first is my organization, Humanity Forward, I’m involved with a number of campaigns. The first is my organization, Humanity Forward, distributing economic aid directly to families in need. Of the $1.3 million and counting we have distributed, $1 million went straight to struggling families in the Bronx. The second is Project 100 , a group of philanthropists (organized in partnership with former Georgia candidate for governor Stacey Abrams) who are committing $100 million in 100 days in direct relief to needy families.
The third is We Are All Americans , a multicultural effort (organized by the group Gold House, with celebrities like Daniel Dae Kim, Hasan Minhaj, Dave Chappelle and Noah Centineo involved) to bring people together to highlight the fact that this virus affects everyone [via PSAs, performances and an charitable apparel campaign], and that singling out any group — in this case Asian Americans — is wrong. In each case, all proceeds go to economic relief or Covid-19 relief. The best way to change hearts and minds is to take positive actions, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Jeff: During your campaign — and afterwards — you experienced both criticism and significant support from the Asian American community. Do you feel like the criticism was warranted? Are there any things that you would have done differently, if you could redo them? And to the point of support: How much of what enabled your campaign to get off the ground came from Asian American supporters, who saw you as a beacon of hope that we might finally break through into presidential politics?
Andrew: I’m very proud of the historic nature of my candidacy and greatly appreciative of the support I received from Asian Americans. When I was on the trail, I’d meet families who wanted their kids to meet me so they’d have a sense that they could do anything. That meant a lot to me — I imagined what it would have meant to me growing up.
I didn’t take too much notice of criticism, because I figure in a community as diverse as ours, of course there would be a variety of points of view. I hoped that people would see in my campaign the potential to break new ground and shatter preconceptions of what’s possible.
Jeff: There were moments during the campaign, perhaps There were moments during the campaign, perhaps most significantly the Shane Gillis episode , in which you demonstrated a philosophy of forgiving those who are racist, rather than challenging racism directly. Can you share a little more about your beliefs when it comes to racial divides? What do you think is the best way to mitigate, or even end, racism?
Andrew: I grew up in a predominantly white part of upstate New York. I got called “chink” and “gook” somewhat regularly. It gave me a chip on my shoulder for years and made me feel out of place for much of my childhood.
But as an adult looking back, I don’t hate the kids I grew up with. They were a product of their culture and their time. Many of them faced their own struggles, then and later in life. I’ve run into some of them since, and they’ve been among the most avid supporters of my campaign.
Words hurt. But to me, racism is most deeply expressed by the harsh racial inequities that exist in our society . The net worth of a black family in the United States is 10% that of a white family. For Latinos, it’s 12%. Now we are seeing black people die of the coronavirus at much higher rates because of these inequities. If we address them, we will be much closer to a society that approaches our ideals. I think we can make rapid progress if we bring people together.
Jeff: You have suggested that “identity politics” You have suggested that “identity politics” are divisive , that highlighting differences ends up being counterproductive. But if we don’t highlight differences, are we ever able to really overcome them?
Andrew: I’m very proud of my heritage and I think everyone should be. Our diversity is among the most wonderful things about our society. And I appreciate people who stick up for their own community. I do think that identity-based politics is often used in a way that’s unnecessarily divisive. To me, the goal should be to respect everyone’s point of view and find solutions that work for everyone.
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Jeff: Yet your message of “Humanity First” has always resonated most with me when you’ve lifted up how things like race, gender, orientation, ability and citizenship status disproportionately make some groups of Americans more vulnerable. How do we reconcile these very real differences with an “all humans” approach?
Andrew: What are the biggest problems facing our country today? Climate change, the automation and dehumanization of our economy, this pandemic and mass unemployment, pervasive financial insecurity and income inequality, the eroding mental health of our children, sky-high student loan debt and diminishing paths forward. These are problems that affect everybody. They also affect those with the least the most, which in this country overlaps with people of color.
We are seeing this play out right now with the coronavirus pandemic. Our government has been decades behind the curve in addressing the greatest problems of our time. If we make real progress on these, we’ll elevate everyone, but the people who are the most vulnerable among us will be lifted the fastest. That’s what moving humanity forward is all about.