For Asian-Americans, Hsu points out, guys like this are familiar, and they are seen as insiders, for the ease with which they can blend into white culture. Yang grew up as one of the only Asians in his hometown, enduring racial abuse and bullying, and you can still spot defense mechanisms in the pragmatic, almost dismissive way he talks about identity today. When Asians like this enter elite workplaces, where they are again surrounded by white people, they tend to use such mechanisms to great effect: They are the so-called model-minority Asians who are “like everyone else,” who don’t “play the race card,” who know how to assure others that they belong. When Yang talks about his immigrant parents, it’s in economic terms, describing the patents his father generated for GE and IBM as “a pretty good deal for the United States.” He has a habit of making light ethnic jokes about himself, like a kid trying to ingratiate himself at a new school: “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” or “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” Yang even offered public absolution to Shane Gillis, the comedian who was fired from “S.N.L.” for, among other things, calling Yang a “Jew chink.” His approach to race is the conciliatory style a nonwhite candidate might have adopted years ago — the one Barack Obama took when he talked about being “a skinny kid with a funny name.” It acknowledges racial difference but asks us — self-deprecatingly, a little humiliatingly — to get over it.
For white voters who hate thinking about identity, this may resemble many of the Asian-Americans they know and like. But for progressive, upwardly mobile Asian-Americans — many of whom have aligned their identities with a more modern political consciousness — Yang’s approach has raised hackles. This month, in fact, he met with a collection of Asian-American and Pacific Islander journalists and was peppered with tough questions about his comments on race and the harm they might inflict on others. The minority who has minimized his difference is now seen, by these peers, as the wayward child.
Some of Yang’s comments have bothered me too. But I’ve been far more interested in Yang’s refusal to engage in polite identity politics. Those of us who think, write and talk about race for a living, crafting provocative deconstructions of power and privilege, have always associated ourselves with some vaguely defined insurgency against a racist reality; regardless of where we work, whether at Harvard or at The New York Times, we locate ourselves first through our identities, and only then through our work and the financial freedoms it affords. But as I read a recent column in The Los Angeles Times about Yang’s meeting, I was struck by something. I knew almost everyone involved, including the column’s author, Frank Shyong, a dear friend. And it seemed to me that there wasn’t a single observer, especially among Asian-Americans, who wouldn’t see most of the people there as the insiders — professionals with enviable educations who use their influence to push ideas about identity derived, in large part, from the cultural-studies programs of elite universities.
This is a specific form of multiculturalism, one we’ve come to label “identity politics.” It flourished under Obama’s presidency, especially in our conversations about popular culture. In a time of heightened racial conflict, though, its concerns are showing some wear. When you focus on questions like which Hollywood actors get to play fictional characters, or organize meetings where people with fancy jobs steer a presidential candidate toward their views, anyone who professes not to care about any of these things can easily be anointed a bold outsider. Candidates have rejected identity politics for political appeal before, but I can’t recall a candidate who has done so with as gentle a touch as Yang. People know what those focused on identity would prefer Yang to say, and some seem to admire his quiet refusal to say it. What does that tell us about the ubiquity of these ideas and their possible expiration date?
Watching Peterson, in that video, you are reminded of the many Americans who may feel refreshed by Yang’s demurrals on race. In the second half of his column, Shyong described going to a Yang rally and interviewing Asian supporters, most of whom said that while they didn’t love Yang’s supposed missteps, they didn’t see them as a big deal. They, I imagine, have a simpler view of representation — the same one that felt so anachronistic when I first watched Sarlin’s interview. The simple view is that Yang matters because he’s an Asian guy running for president. But there’s a less-simple view, too — one in which many people might be coming to see the self-appointed arbiters of racial politics, and the candidates working to satisfy them, as the establishment. Those people will be happy to see anyone willing to break from our rigid prescriptions.