One of the traits Andrew Yang has exhibited most consistently in his 22 months as a presidential candidate is affability in the face of cataclysm, the ability to greet crisis with a cheerful grin. His campaign is marked by a disarming levity given its preoccupations, peppering warnings about social and economic ruin at the hands of machines with impromptu line dances and jokes about the diametric tension between President Trump and an “Asian man who likes math.” Yang’s coalition — an incongruous mix of tech entrepreneurs, progressive college students, libertarians, and repentant Trump voters — is a testament to his knack for making disparate and sometimes conflicting factions feel comfortable with each other, and with him. So at first glance, his decision to sit down and chat with Shane Gillis, the recently hired-then-fired SNL comedian who referred to Yang as a “Jew chink” on a podcast in May, seems more in line with Yang’s instinct for conciliation than a concerted effort to make bigoted white people feel better about themselves.
Skepticism is warranted, to be sure, and has been expressed: Jenn Fang, creator of the Asian-American advocacy blog Reappropriate, told the New York Times on Tuesday, “[Yang is] trying to let Shane Gillis off the hook so he can cater to other voters that he needs to get to the White House.” It’s true that Yang could’ve stayed silent while SNL made its decision, or rebuked Gillis’s remarks and moved on, but chose instead to publicly declare the comedian neither “malignant [nor] evil,” defend his ongoing employment, and offer to “sit down and talk with him.” To the extent that political campaigns are about endearing oneself to the public, it’s hard to interpret this gesture of goodwill as anything nobler than an effort to look magnanimous by loudly reassuring a white man that his racism neither defines nor should condemn him. That this is a tension candidates must navigate at all speaks to the racial inequity of the current order, and provides an opportunity for Yang to subvert it, if he wants to.
Yang’s decision to meet with Gillis is inseparable from how politics routinely require candidates and elected officials to make peace with bigotry to appease white voters, regardless of their personal disposition. This is driven largely by concerns about political survival: The evidence that criticizing bigots is a winning issue during elections remains far less compelling than the evidence that actually being a bigot wins them — as the recent history of the Republican Party attests. Few national elections have been lost because a candidate angered too many black or Latino voters. Trepidation around confronting this manifests in various ways, from hesitance by politicians to call Trump a racist because his “heart” is unknowable, to allegations of racism between members of Congress that resolve in hugs on the Capitol floor. The cost of bucking this trend can be steep: President Obama’s approval ratings with white voters dipped below 50 percent for the first time in 2009 after he criticized a white Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officer for arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., outside his own home, and never recovered — even after the president arranged a “beer summit” with Gates, the officer, and then-Vice-President Biden to hash things out.
Expressing concern — let alone anger — on behalf of any racial group besides white people has long been politically perilous in the U.S., but Yang is well-equipped to navigate its pitfalls. His joking invocations of Asian-American stereotypes — namely, the idea that Asian-Americans are notably studious, achievement-oriented, and fixated on math and science — have been widely criticized by other Asian-Americans, but also suggest a fluency with the coping mechanism, deployed by marginalized people throughout history, of disarming and reappropriating racist views through humor. Of greater concern is that his more serious forays into the topic also tend to endorse rather than undermine the model-minority myth from which these jokes stem — like when he suggested at the presidential debate in July that the story of his father, a peanut farmer from China, raising an eventual candidate for the presidency is “the immigration story that we have to be able to share with the American people.” The implied alternative, advanced by Trump and his allies, is a story about immigrants who arrive poor and remain poor for generations. Preferable to either is a framework where an immigrant’s capacity for social mobility is not the precondition for consensus that welcoming immigrants to America is a good thing.
Grace toward wrongdoers is commendable, of course, and forgiveness should be exercised liberally as a general rule. But within a politics that incentivizes forgiving white voters their trespasses for fear of alienating them, to deploy it without requiring some kind of accountability amounts to simple exoneration. Perhaps this is Yang’s goal, given his avoidance of racial and partisan tension in the past. But it seems as likely that his decision to publicly absolve Gillis hints at the same imagination deficit that afflicts many Americans when it comes to racism. Realism and pragmatism are ancillary concerns for Yang when he’s promising $1,000 a month to every adult, but the same boldness often eludes him when the chance arises to challenge voters’ racist assumptions. Showing grace and civility toward Gillis personally is his prerogative. But subverting racism in politics requires more than interpersonal grace and civility — it requires at least the force of societal vision that Yang applies to his policy proposals, and a willingness to implement it even when making nice and asking for nothing in return is easier.