Ruben Navarrette: Don't blame Yang for speaking truth about how to respond to virus threats

Summary: Americans can do better. We can think harder. We can strive for empathy. And we can ease our finger off the trigger of always being offended by anything that anyone says about race.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — Andrew Yang ran for president on the idea that it is time to do "MATH" (Make America Think Harder).

But the 45-year-old lawyer and entrepreneur — whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan — didn't think hard enough before clumsily charging into America's racial divide.

As you may know, there has recently been a rash of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States. The likely cause: misplaced outrage over COVID-19 — which appears to have originated in China, a fact that the Chinese government seems to have been in no hurry to announce to the world.

If you're of a mind to blame Chinese Americans for the actions of the Chinese government, or if you think that all Asian Americans are of Chinese ancestry, you're also not thinking very hard.

You might as well blame Mexican Americans like me for what Mexico does, and assume that all Latinos are Mexican.


Still, when talking about race, racists and racial stereotypes, one should understand that the terrain is peppered with landmines. It's wise to proceed with caution so as not to be misunderstood.

If people are going to get offended, it is better that they get offended by what you actually said — and not what they thought you said.

What Yang said, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, was that Asian Americans could play a part in stopping the scourge of anti-Asian hate crimes, and that the way to do this was by essentially being more American.

"I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing," Yang wrote. "But saying 'Don't be racist toward Asians' won't work."

He's right. We need solutions, not sermons.

"We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before," he continued. "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. ... We are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure."

Speaking of sermons, that's a beauty, eh? You can see why some critics were quick to accuse Yang of blaming the victim, and failing to acknowledge that Asian Americans are just as patriotic as any other variety of Americans.

The part about patriotism is a bum rap. In his piece, Yang was careful to note that, after the Empire of Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans volunteered for military duty in World War II at the highest levels to show that they too were Americans. Thousands of them served in Europe as part of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most highly decorated group of soldiers in World War II.


All this heroism was taking place while — in one of the most disgraceful chapters in U.S. history — more than 100,000 Japanese men, women and children were caged in internment camps. If that's not the very definition of patriotism, then it's time to retire the word.

Today, during the COVID-19 crisis, a new band of heroes — whose uniforms are scrubs, masks and other protective gear — is rushing to the front lines once again. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, more than 17% of U.S. doctors are Asian American.

Beyond that, I don't think Yang was blaming the victim. I think he was just carrying on a tradition familiar to many people of color.

For generations, those of us who are non-white have been having a conversation about the best way to relate to white folks.

Consider, for instance, the debate between African American intellectuals over whether black people should aim for "respectability" by acting, speaking, and dressing a certain way. Or the argument that Mexican Americans have had amongst ourselves in recent decades, about whether we can defend illegal immigrants without condoning illegal immigration.

I feel Yang. It sometimes seems like I've spent my whole life trying to make white people comfortable, with varying degrees of success. And, like Asian Americans, Latinos are in a racial "no man's land" — in limbo between black and white, as we battle for recognition from a media, entertainment industry and political system that only sees two colors.

Americans can do better. We can think harder. We can strive for empathy. And we can ease our finger off the trigger of always being offended by anything that anyone says about race.

What To Read Next
Get Local