What Andrew Yang means to me, an Asian American professor of Black Studies

I live in Columbia, SC, the state capital, and I moved here three years ago as a scholar and teacher working in the fields of African American literature, Black feminist theory, AfroAsian studies, and critical theory. For the past year, I have been increasingly wrapped up in the Andrew Yang phenomenon and have been committed to understanding it as best I can, which then entailed my becoming, once the weather cooled off, an every-weekend canvasser and now an official volunteer ambassador for the campaign. Of course, I have never pushed Yang as a candidate in my classroom. Instead, I have posed big historical questions about how Asian Americans and African Americans are fundamentally linked politically and culturally, as Fred Ho used to say, and I have explained to my students that, quite simply, neither Yang nor I would be here if not for the Black freedom struggle.

The Columbia Yang Gang has catapulted me into my community in ways that I could not have foreseen. For instance, some seven weeks ago we began volunteering as a group, with zero political agenda, at a community picnic for the homeless put on by our local chapter of Food Not Bombs. Its wonderful organizers, having done this work for decades, now quip that it is always “Bernie folks and the Yang Gang” there, though in invoking the former, they are simply noting their own candidate. It has been a joy to serve in this space. A recent study revealed that more than fifty percent of our country’s homeless is African American. Anti-Blackness expresses itself here, as everywhere, as discriminatory housing policy, new-wave gentrification, the criminal justice system, the lack of mental health resources, job discrimination, and generational poverty. At our picnic, it is heart-wrenching to see so many veteran caps, especially as our government teetered on the brink of yet another war in the beginning days of 2020.

Yet I have heard so many engaging and fun stories that together give lie to the tempting illiberal notion that those with seemingly nothing come from nothing. There are poems to mothers and ancestors long gone, recited from memory, and there are elaborate tales from childhood about cockfights, linked pedantically to the genesis of our local university’s mascot. One guy, reading my shirt, asks if I am Yang. I reply, “He’s my brother!” A fun Chihuahua shows up in a baby stroller. Another guy, who prefers our winter to the climate of his native Pennsylvania, keeps a pet lizard, whom he met outside a Bojangles, in his backpack. Leaving this space to go to canvassing is not always a smooth spiritual transition, since the two forms of engagement feel only remotely connected to each other, especially if we are headed to a wealthy white neighborhood where the first response to Yang’s candidacy might be, “Well, why would I need a thousand dollars?”

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Before canvassing on Sundays, we volunteer at the weekly People’s Picnic in Finlay Park in downtown Columbia, such as on this rainy yet joyful afternoon on December 29, 2019. It is easy to imagine Universal Basic Income improving the lives of our homeless and food-insecure neighbors. Photo credit: @JenBaileySC

Today I voted early in the South Carolina open primary so that I can be on canvass / get-out-the-vote duty on February 29.

Today I got to vote for a policy, Universal Basic Income, that I never, ever, ever would have thought I would see in an election in my lifetime. This concept has been in western thought at least since Thomas More introduced Utopia itself, not to mention in the Black Radical Tradition from Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matter. It is a uniquely transformative policy that immediately and directly benefits every single one of us, disproportionately the neediest among us, and it orients our national consciousness toward dignity, trust, empathy, and compassion.

It is also a policy currently being studied and tested throughout the world. In addition to Stockton, CA, recent experiments have taken place in Kenya, India, the Netherlands, Uganda, Finland, and Canada. The world is watching, wondering whether the declining American empire can lead the way in providing some human respite from its neoliberal brutality of the last forty years.

By the same vote, I supported the first viable Asian American presidential candidate in our nation’s history, which is also something I would never, ever, ever have thought I would do in my lifetime. We share similar backgrounds, similar views on Asian American identity, and, most importantly, similar views of our station in American society. We both embody the notion that Asian Americans, at our best, have given and attended to the other, despite and because of the historical truth that we have been marginalized politically and made invisible culturally. At our best, we do so as we emphasize joy, levity, and fun.

We both came up on Jay Z and Dave Chappelle. We both got to go to fancy schools then disowned the narrative in pursuit of otherwise paths. We order our Boba with half sugar and almond milk, eat beef noodle soups for comfort, support Jin and J Lin and the Fung Bros and Jon Chu steadfastly, and watch and play basketball to unwind. (Even after the most recent flurry of endorsements, my second favorite endorser, only after Anita Baker, remains Dominique Wilkins.) We utter the same musing about being an East Coast Asian who loves being mistaken for a West Coast Asian because we romanticize, even as adults, what it would have been like to be surrounded. Speaking of which, his list of endorsers includes former house representative Michael Honda, a survivor of Japanese internment who served in Congress as recently as 2017. Imagine how surrounded Uncle Mike may feel these days, especially as the leading progressive candidate keeps going on and on about how great FDR was.

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I got to meet Andrew Yang outside of our field office on November 22, 2019.

And we both possess that old Asian American comfortability in Black spaces, while the white and Black establishment gaze resists the very notion. Those in power are committed to having us believe that Asian Americans and African Americans are in perpetual and irresolvable conflict and that Asian Americans are inherently coded as white-allied and anti-Black, even though our history at every turn has said otherwise.

Until the end of this month, I will continue working every corner of Columbia to do my small part to get the word out regarding Andrew Yang and his Freedom Dividend. Over the last three months, I have had countless inspiring conversations in people’s doorways. (I have wondered often how surprised they might be to be conversing with an Asian dude who showed up to their all-white or all-Black neighborhood, no less an Asian dude who showed up to talk about another Asian dude.) Talking to fellow citizens outside of my normal circles, whether at the picnic or while canvassing, has made me a better person, thinker, and teacher.

Yet in the conversations I will remember best, there is no need to go beyond invoking Dr. King. As Dave Chappelle said here last week, “I know Dr. King’s dream when I see it.” By dumb luck, my “here” in 2020 is the Black city of the Deep South where Dr. King had been scheduled to speak on the eve of April 4, 1968. He decided to stay in Memphis another day to support Black sanitation workers, and he was fighting for their dignity. In doing so, he was pushing toward his dream of the universal recognition of our common humanity.

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Dave Chappelle visits our field office on January 29, 2020.

Assistant Professor of African American Studies & English Literature, University of South Carolina

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