Andrew Yang can forgive Shane Gillis if he wants — but he should keep anti-black racism out of it

Michael Arceneaux
Comedian Shane Gillis performs a Comedy Central set in July 2019: Comedy Central/YouTube

Andrew Yang, like many people who parrot the lines decrying what is colloquially referred to as “cancel culture,” doesn’t know what he is talking about. When asked about NBC’s firing of Shane Gillis from Saturday Night Life over his past use of racist and homophobic slurs on Monday, Yang, who has forgiven Gillis for his remarks, told CNN that "as a society, we have become unduly punitive and vindictive about people making statements that some find offensive or distasteful." That’s a peculiar observation to come from a person seeking the Democratic presidential nomination so that he may run against President Donald Trump, a man so obviously not reeling from the impact of public outcries over distasteful and offensive commentary.

Still, Yang is well within his right to be as forgiving and clueless on the subject of cancel culture as he sees fit, but when it comes to talking about racism — namely racism aimed at black people — he would be well-advised to watch what the hell he says. Before he made that mildly comical comment to CNN, he expressed another point of view that any reasonable person should take offense to. In a tweet, Yang discussed the Gillis controversy — one which involved Gillis using anti-Asian slurs during comedy routines in the past — to make this befuddling if not flat-out stupid declaration: “It’s also the case that anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the N-word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.”

What Yang could have said is that while intolerance on any level is regrettable and avoidable, perhaps we could all stand to be a bit more forgiving. It’s a stance I find to still be a crock, but nonetheless, at least it steers clear of the despicable act Yang engaged in with that tweet. To purport that anti-Asian racism is seen by society as more acceptable than racism towards black people is, as author Nicole Chung put it, "ridiculous, steeped in anti-blackness itself, and further proof that we don't need to take this man's candidacy seriously."

Indeed, why try to measure the pain one community grapples with when met with racism by falsely implying that another doesn’t have it as bad? Why even make such a misguided tit-for-tat comparison? And why do this in defense of a white man who has shown not a single ounce of regret for making racist and homophobic comments — not even in this climate we’re living in, in which queer people and racial minorities are increasingly targets as a direct result of the bigotry permeating the current administration?

Again, why bring black people into this — particularly as it relates to someone Yang goes on to claim shouldn’t be fired anyway? If anti-blackness was such a big deal, Donald Trump’s inherently racist presidential campaign would not have allowed him to land a guest spot on SNL during the 2016 election. I’m irritated that this bears repeating, but you don’t need to say “n***er” to convey anti-blackness.

You just don’t rent to them; or you call for their deaths even when they’re innocent; or you question the legitimacy of the first black president in order to gain your own footing in select political circles; or you argue that black people “live in hell”; or you refer to mostly black-populated nations as “s**thole” countries; or you frolic and pander to white nationalists and white supremacists.

Or you say many of the things you’ve heard in the right-wing media. There are plenty o’ ways to convey anti-blackness. It is a longstanding American tradition. A wannabe president oughta know that.

To suggest anti-blackness is less tolerated than any other strain of bigotry is not only another display of Yang’s facile understanding of cancel culture, but how racism functions, period. Yang may want to give everyone $1,000 a month as president, but if he pits minority groups against each other to protect racist white men who choose to contribute to the intolerance plaguing this country while feigning victimhood for simply facing consequences for his actions, what good is he really?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it was only a month ago that I (and many others) watched Andrew Yang do the Cupid Shuffle (a line dance, beloveds) in Beaufort, South Carolina ahead of a meeting with the local Black Chamber of Commerce. I was charmed if not impressed by his ability to catch the beat. And yet, while I never placed much faith in him succeeding with his presidential campaign, I have taken some of his ideas — namely, how automation will permanently alter the workforce — seriously.

It’s too bad, though, that when it comes to the realities of anti-black racism, not only has Andrew Yang clearly failed to give a real assessment to that particular American plight, but he’s distorted that experience in order to pander to voters who have made both our experiences in America far harsher than they ever should have been.