Andrew Yang navigates the identity politics minefield

Andrew Yang’s campaign intrigues me for this reason: The centerpiece of his plan is a nutty idea ( giving every American adult $1,000 a month), but otherwise he’s arguably the most sensible of the top ten Democratic candidates.

During debates, Yang never seems to get as much time as the others on stage. Yet, the young tech executive is competitive in polls with bigger name candidates — Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke — who are masters at grandstanding. And he easily outlasted Kirsten Gillibrand, a prominent U.S. Senator who tried to “eat the scenery” during the first debate.

Yang’s style and his tech background appeal to young voters. They may also seem to like his quips. It’s refreshing, I think, that he’s the only candidate who dabbles in ethnic humor which, when well done, can be among the funniest kinds.

Yang draws a chuckle with lines like: “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors” and “I’m Asian, so you know I love to work.” He also sometimes describes himself as an Asian who’s good at math.”

Naturally, some Asians are offended, or pretend to be. Someone called Mia Ives-Rublee moaned:

I’m really sick of Andrew Yang and how he continuously hurts the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community by using stereotypes that have harmed our community for centuries. It’s not cute. It’s not okay.

No doubt countless lives have been ruined by the view (fact, actually) that there are a lot of good Asian-American doctors ( way more than one would expect based on their representation in the population). We Jews have suffered similarly.

Yang defends his mild humor, saying that by poking fun at the stereotype of Asians, he’s “making Americans reflect more on it.” But most of us understand that he’s just trying for the light touch. And just about every knows that the stereotype has a strong basis in fact.

Yang has navigated the ludicrous identity politics-based attack on his jokes well enough. A second controversy arose when Saturday Night Live hired a comedian, Shane Gillis, who, on his podcasts, has used crude ethnic slurs against Asian-Americans and against Yang (whom he called a “Jew chink”). SNL fired Gillis before he could appear on the show.

Yang responded by tweeting:

Shane – I prefer comedy that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots. But I’m happy to sit down and talk with you if you’d like.

And later:

For the record, I do not think [Gillis] should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human.

I admire that sentiment. It’s refreshing to see a candidate for president in either party take the high road. However, it seems to me that Gillis’s anti-Asian language was vile enough to warrant his firing by SNL. Still, I think Yang came out of the Shane Gillis controversy looking good.

But then Yang made this statement, perhaps to counter criticism from those who thinks he’s not sufficiently portraying Asian-Americans as victims:

Anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the n word, the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.

Yang may have a point at some level. However, it’s bad politics to suggest that anti-Asian racism is worse in any respect than the racism that, say, Blacks experience. It’s also misleading.

Nonetheless, with the exception of John Delaney, Yang has been the most refreshing Dem candidate, in my view. And with the exception of Marianne Williamson (and in a completely different way) he has perhaps been the most entertaining. Moreover, unlike Delaney and Williamson, Yang made it to the big stage this month, and not as the last one admitted.

Yang is not going to win any primaries or caucuses, nor will he come close. However, he has already vastly outperformed the expectations of most observers, and will, I think, outperform any previous Asian-American presidential candidate (including Bobby Jindal, the Asian-American former congressman and governor who reportedly likes Yang’s ethnic quips).

Nor will Yang’s forays into mild ethnic humor cause him to lose an appreciable number of votes. You have to think that “The Offended” would have voted for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or some other humorless candidate, anyway.