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Andrew Yang draws backlash for op-ed calling on Asian Americans to show ‘American-ness’ amid coronavirus pandemic

Andrew Yang speaks with supporters in 2019. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons

Andrew Yang described his recent Washington Post op-ed as a call to action for Asian Americans. They responded, but perhaps not in the way the former Democratic presidential candidate had hoped for.

The op-ed, titled “We Asian Americans are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure” was published on Wednesday.

HuffPost reports that by late Thursday, Yang’s name was trending on Twitter, with over 6,000 mostly critical tweets responding to the piece.

The op-ed begins with a description of an encounter Yang recently had outside a New York grocery store, when he noticed a man look at him and frown.

“And then, for the first time in years, I felt it,” Yang writes. “I felt self-conscious — even a bit ashamed — of being Asian.”

Yang goes on to address the increased hostility and aggression in recent weeks against Asian Americans, who have been blamed for the coronavirus outbreak. The entrepreneur said he “obviously” does not think being racist is a good thing. 

But he adds that he finds that negative responses – saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians,” for example – generally don’t work.

During World War II, Yang notes, Japanese Americans volunteered for military duty at the highest level to demonstrate they were Americans. Now, he says Asian American community members are also stepping up to the front lines of the pandemic to show they can be part of the solution. 

“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” Yang concludes. “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”

Many Asian Americans took to Twitter to criticize this perspective, saying Yang was placing an unfair burden on Asian Americans.

Many took particular issue with the World War II example in the op-ed, pointing out that Japanese American families were still imprisoned during that time period.

On Friday, comedian Jenny Yang posted two tongue-in-cheek videos where she stood on the street dressed in the colors of the American flag, holding a sign saying, “Honk if you won’t hate crime me” and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” 

“Thank you Andrew Yang, I think it worked,” she says, as captions across the bottom of the video share facts about Japanese Americans in WWII and sarcastically lament that they should have simply worn red, white and blue. 

As backlash mounted, however, some felt that critics were misconstruing Yang’s message.

According to editor Melissa Chen, Yang was not saying Asian Americans need to prove their loyalty to Americanness, but that it helps “change the circumstances in which racism flourishes.”

Indeed, Yang’s op-ed was not without supporters. “You are needed now more than ever,” one user wrote

“Thank you so much for this article. Thank you for being our leader!” said another, taking the opportunity to share a link to an article about Chinese professors at the University of Michigan coordinating donation efforts for protective equipment.

But some of his previous advocates were among the ranks of the disappointed. Korean American actor Steven Yeun, who endorsed Yang’s presidential bid, expressed strong disagreement with the op-ed.

“(Y)ou can critique and support someone at the same time,” Yeun said, telling his followers in a second tweet to “enact collectivism” as human beings going through a crisis together rather than perform nationalism out of fear.

Yang did not comment on the backlash while his name was trending. However, the next day, the current CNN commentator responded to a tweet from actor Simu Liu.

Liu had initially weighed in by stating that the Asian community unequivocally rejected the op-ed.

“I know he can and will do better,” Liu added in a second tweet, clarifying that he supports everyone doing their part, but found Yang’s take to be “horribly misguided and tone-deaf.”

Replying to Liu on Friday, Yang tweeted that he’s “just saying we need to do all we can to ease this crisis” and step up in a time of national and global need. 

“Lead and serve,” Yang said. “(I’m) very proud of my heritage and know that different people will have different takes.”

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