With less than a month to go before New York’s primary election, presidential also-ran turned mayoral candidate Andrew Yang is in a war with one of the city’s major newspapers.
On Monday, the New York Daily News posted a cartoon portraying him as a tourist after he said Times Square was his favorite subway station. He and his wife called the paper racist. And then the tabloid hit back by mocking him in another story and getting the local head of the NAACP to say Yang shouldn’t be throwing around the term racism.
“A mayoral candidate who failed to vote in several local elections, decamped to upstate New York during the height of the COVID pandemic, and who recently named the Times Square subway station his favorite among all underground New York City stops—called a press conference Tuesday to complain about a satirical Daily News cartoon depicting him as a tourist,” the newspaper sneered in its story.
Yang and his wife, Evelyn, both blasted the cartoon at the emotional presser in Queens, decrying the jibe as racist and harmful to Asian Americans.
“I call upon everyone in this race to say that all of us belong here in New York and that characterizing anyone as being less New York than someone else on the basis of their race or religion or any other background is wrong,” said Yang, who has lived in New York for 24 years but has never voted for mayor.
When Evelyn got up to speak, she said of the cartoon, “They’re calling Andrew, this Asian man, a tourist, coming from who knows where, but probably from a land of other people who look just like him with his shifty, beady eyes… Not only does this dehumanize Asians, it promotes racism against them,” she continued, adding that she asked the News to pull the drawing from its print edition. “And do you know what they did? They printed it anyway.”
Maya Wiley, a former adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio who is running against Yang for the Democratic mayoral nomination, said the cartoon was a step too far.
“@AndrewYang should not have to endure this,” she tweeted Tuesday. “No New Yorker who is Asian or Pacific Islander should. This is an offensive cartoon and we all have an obligation to call it out. #StopAsianHate”
Some have argued that even suggesting that Yang isn’t a “real New Yorker” is itself xenophobic. But in a statement to the News, NAACP New York state conference president Hazel Dukes pushed back on the criticism, saying of Yang: “He didn’t do his homework—maybe that’s what they’re talking about—not as an Asian-American. He has not been able to answer some very pertinent questions about life in the City of New York. They’re talking about his knowledge of the city. I would not say we should label that as racism.”
Dukes continued: “There is racism. No doubt about it. When people say all black people are lazy, they’re not talking about me. When you make these kind of remarks, you’re talking about a whole group of people. That’s racist. When you talk about a cartoon, they’re just talking about him.”
The News defended cartoonist Bill Bramhall’s work, saying the drawing was intended as a comment on the “major gaps” in Yang’s grasp of city politics and policy.
“This is not a racial stereotype or racist caricature,” editorial page director Josh Greenman said in a statement, adding that the original version of the cartoon, which ran first online, was updated for the paper’s print edition. “After Bill tweeted his cartoon yesterday, people reacted badly to how Yang’s eyes were drawn,” he said. “Bill altered the drawing out of sensitivity to those concerns, without changing the concept of the cartoon, which he and we stand by.”
Yang’s seeming confusion over standard New York City details has been a point of contention since he entered the race. In the early days of Yang’s run, New Yorkers lambasted him for referring to a large Midtown-style deli as a “bodega.” His bumbling takes on New York, after nearly two-and-a-half decades as a resident, have since inspired multiple parody accounts on Twitter.
“Our city needs more green space—today I’m proposing a large, centrally located park,” said one tweet posted by @YangPolicyShop.
The “hazy outlines of a plan” Yang floated last week that calls for the city to take full control of its subways and buses from Albany is “so bad that it should disqualify him,” according to Streetsblog NYC, a local transportation-focused media outlet. In a candidates’ forum, Yang was at a loss when asked about the MTA’s debt load. He then tried to deflect from his non-answer by incorrectly insisting that “the MTA doesn’t break its numbers out that cleanly.”
Yang has also failed to inspire confidence by demonstrating a clear lack of familiarity with New York City Police Department procedures, even though he bills himself as uniquely positioned to usher the department “into the 21st century.” At a recent campaign event in Brooklyn, Yang appeared flummoxed when a New York Post reporter asked him about last year’s repeal of 50a, a state law that kept police disciplinary records from public disclosure.
Still, Susan Kang, a professor of political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast that it’s entirely possible to make a political point about whether Yang understands New York City without reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
Kang, who is herself Asian-American, said discussions about racial justice often don’t take Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders into consideration. And while she said she doesn’t think the Daily News cartoon was intentionally racist, “the interpretation was hurtful, so it’s a good time to reflect.”
“This is important because it’s sort of bringing that experience into the public conversation,” Kang told The Daily Beast. “It’s one of those things where in this particular moment people are more sensitive about portrayals of Asian-Americans, and so I can understand where the concern comes from. Right now, with Asian Pacific Islander month, there’s a lot of stuff on social media about how people with Asian heritage feel marginalized based on their appearance.”
Ten years ago, the racial overtones—or not—of a cartoon portrayal of an Asian person’s face wouldn’t necessarily have been discussed, Kang said, noting that this is an important period for all of us to be mindful of our inherent biases and preconceived notions.
“One of the things I feel people have been learning is that people have to listen to other people of various communities about what feels racist to them,” she said, “whether or not they agree with it.”