Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said it was “both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color” on the Democratic presidential primary stage Thursday night.
Standing on the nearly all-white debate stage, Yang said he missed Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who dropped out of the race earlier this month, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was unable to qualify for the debate.
“I miss Kamala, I miss Cory, though I think Cory will be back,” Yang said, and was met by applause. Booker met the fundraising threshold but did not meet the Democratic National Committee’s polling qualifications.
Yang, the son of immigrants, said he’d had many racial epithets used against him as a child.
“But black(s) and Latinos have something much more powerful working against them than words – they have numbers,” he continued. He called attention to the disparity of the net worths of white households compared with black and Latino households.
“And the question is,” Yang said, “Why am I the lone candidate of color on this stage?”
He then pivoted to a main focus of his political platform: the idea of a universal basic income. Yang said a low percentage of Americans donate to political campaigns, and added: “You know what you need to donate to political campaigns? Disposable income.”
Yang wants to give each American 18 and older $1,000 a month, arguing it will help make the economy more equitable and allow people to decide how to use the money, rather than the government.
“I guarantee if we had a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month, I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight,” Yang said.
Yang’s answer, in response to a question by moderator Amna Nawaz of “PBS NewsHour,” was the first time the lack of diversity on the stage and atop the Democratic field was addressed at the debate. Nawaz then posed the same question to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“I’ll answer that question, but I wanted to get back to the issue of climate change for a moment, because I do believe this is the existential issue,” Sanders said.
Nawaz responded: “Senator, with all respect, this question is about race. Can you answer the question as it was asked?” Her question was met by loud applause from the crowd.
Sanders responded that “people of color, in fact, are going to be the people suffering most if we do not deal with climate change.”
“And by the way, we have an obligation up here, if there are not any of our African American brothers and sisters up here, to speak about an economy in which African Americans are exploited, where black women die three times at higher rates than white women, where we have a criminal justice system which is racist and broken, disproportionately made up of African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans who are in jail,” Sanders said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, businessman Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were also on the debate stage on Thursday.
In addition to Booker, several other candidates of color did not qualify for Thursday’s debate, including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
Later, the conversation shifted to immigration. Yang again touted his immigrant roots and said almost half of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or children of immigrants.
“Immigrants make our country stronger and more dynamic. And immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have absolutely nothing to do with,” Yang said. “If you go to the factory in Michigan, it’s not wall-to-wall immigrants, it’s wall-to-wall robot arms and machines.”
Yang said that if elected president, he could “send a very clear message, where if you’re considering immigrating to this country, and I’m the president, you would realize my son or daughter could become president of the United States.” He said that message is the opposite of the one being projected by the Trump administration.
CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.