NEW YORK — Andrew Yang’s voice cracked Thursday as he opened up about something he’s rarely discussed in his bid to become New York City’s next mayor: his own experiences with racism.
“I’ve been Asian all my life, and I remember vividly growing up with this constant sense of invisibility, mockery and disdain,” he said. “A sense that you cannot be American if you have an Asian face. But this has metastasized into something new and deadly and virulent and hateful.”
Yang was among six mayoral contenders who gathered at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem to address the recent Georgia shootings that killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian heritage. The shootings come amid a steep uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes across the United States, including in New York City, inflamed by rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and others who have referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus” and the “Kung-flu.”
Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, has expressed a reluctance to engage in “identity politics,” as he called them in a 2019 interview — preferring instead to riff on policy ideas around the city’s comeback. But with a healthy lead in early polls, he stands to become the first Asian American mayor of New York City, and the dangers facing the Asian community have put his heritage front and center in the race.
The sharp increase in attacks against Asians and Asian Americans in New York City include a woman who had acid poured on her face, a restaurant worker who was punched at random and a woman who was shoved to the ground in Flushing and required stitches to the head.
“The Black community has suffered from something that I believe many Asians are experiencing for the first time: The sense of our place in America has always been questioned, but now it’s something different: It is dehumanization,” Yang said.
Of the 21-year-old white man charged in the Georgia shootings, he said, “I believe that this young man did not see his victims as human beings.”
“I believe that the person who punched the Chinese restaurant worker for no other reason than his race, the person who shoved the middle aged Asian woman to the ground in Flushing, disfiguring her, the person who poured acid on the face of the elderly Asian woman in downtown Manhattan — I don’t believe they saw their victims as human beings,” he added.
The statistics showing a spike in hate crimes against Asian people understate the problem, because many crimes are not reported, he said. “There are dozens, hundreds of incidents that we have never heard from the victims of, and I know this because I’ve talked to some of those victims,” Yang said.
Fellow mayoral hopeful Maya Wiley made a nod to Yang’s experience in her own remarks.
“Andrew Yang, you have a home here,” said Wiley, a former City Hall attorney and MSNBC commentator. “Every last person in this city who comes from the community, any community, documented or undocumented, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, Black, Jewish — because we’ve also had a rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — everyone is a New Yorker who resides in this city.”
POLITICO reported earlier this week that Yang, in an interview on The Rubin Report during his presidential run, said he didn’t think it was productive to engage in “identity politics.” He said he didn’t see it as a way to “build consensus or bring people together or bring big policies across the finish line.”
“I think it’s kind of a stupid way to try and win elections,“ Yang said at the time. “I think the Democratic party needs to try and gravitate away from identity politics and towards things that would actually bridge the gap.”
Asked about the quote in an interview this week, Yang said he recognized the cultural importance of his run at this moment in time.
“I’m very proud to be the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat. And I’d be proud to be the first Asian American mayor in New York’s history,” he told POLITICO. “But the problems that we’re facing, I think, are things that should bring us together in terms of the way we try and address them. And this is coming from someone who is very acutely conscious of the fact that anti-Asian violence is up 900 percent in New York City, and that there are communities suffering in very distinct and disparate ways.”
Other candidates in the race have made their ethnicity a key talking point. Eric Adams often tells his story of being a young Black man beaten up by police. Ray McGuire recounts his rags-to-riches history as a young Black man who was raised by a poor single mother and become a successful Wall Street executive. Dianne Morales, who would be the city’s first Afro-Latina mayor, refers to herself as the “proud daughter of Puerto Rican parents.”
Yang — who was raised in relative affluence and attended Phillips Exeter, Brown and Columbia — has not focused as much on his Taiwanese heritage, though he has been courting Asian voters as he barnstorms the city ahead of the June 22 primary.
He’s won the backing of Council Member Margaret Chin, as well as her would-be successor Gigi Li. He also has the backing of Assembly Member Ron Kim.
“He’s a rockstar,” Kim (D-Queens) said of Yang’s reception in Asian American communities. “He brings a lot of hope and energy, at a time when there’s so much tension. You can feel the anxiety and tension when you walk around downtown Flushing.”
“It’s a never ending optimism that he brings to the table that makes people feel like things can be better soon, and there’s value to that at a time when people are helpless,” Kim said, adding that his account of facing racist attitudes would resonate with Asian voters. “Whether you’re a recent immigrant or a third-generation American, we all know what he’s talking about, which is constantly being treated like a foreigner in your own country.”
Kim said Yang’s attitude on race has shifted, noting he was critical of Yang when he wrote an op-ed arguing that Asian Americans should step up to demonstrate their American-ness in order to combat hate crimes.
“When people like him use their platform to talk about these issues — when Asian Americans run for mayor of the biggest city in the country — we are changing the way people perceive Asian Americans,” he said. “He’s leaning in very hard in understanding the complexities of race relations, and recognizing that we are not in a post-racial society as much as many Democrats” would like to think.
As hate crimes escalate against Asian Americans, the issue stands to be a galvanizing force in the mayoral election. Sharpton said he summoned the candidates to show that political rivals could join in condemnation of the violence.
“If they can unite on anything, they should be able to unite on dealing with this uptick of hate crimes in this nation and in this city,” he said. “No one should be mayor of any city if they are not going to vocally and very aggressively deal with the crime of hate.”
City Comptroller Scott Stringer was among those blaming the attacks on Trump. Adams recalled Atlanta’s historic association with the civil rights movement for African Americans.
“We think about the marches, we think about the white hoods, we think about all the pain that comes with it,” Adams said. “And when you hear about eight innocent people that were just destroyed by this incident, you can’t help but to reflect on how far we have not traveled.”
Sally Goldenberg and Tina Nguyen contributed reporting.
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