As the nation grapples with its legacy of systemic racism and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on poor people and communities of color, philanthropy needs to take a stronger stand for a community that too often is overlooked: the 22.6 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) who call the United States home.
As a formerly incarcerated immigrant who is now leading a foundation, I am acutely aware of the need for increased philanthropic support targeting marginalized AAPI communities. Less than 1 percent of philanthropic dollars goes to funding AAPI causes. At a time when AAPIs are facing a new wave of discrimination and hate and, like other communities of color, are suffering disproportionately from the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, that's not enough.
Why are AAPI causes so underfunded? Partly because of the false perception that Asian Americans don't face the same kinds of structural racism and discrimination as other communities of color. But a quick tour of American history reveals that AAPI communities have always had to contend with racist policies driven by anti-Asian sentiment — from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the Immigration Act of 1924, to the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s.
Sadly, the tradition of scapegoating and discrimination against Asian Americans has once again reared its ugly head, with people in power spreading racist characterizations of the pandemic as the "China virus" and the "Kung Flu." In July, Stop AAPI Hate — an initiative launched in March by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University reported 2,583 incidents of discrimination and harassment against Asian Americans in the three months between March 19 and August 5, 2020.
Even before COVID-19, Asian Americans were facing significant challenges. When people think of Asian Americans as a single monolithic group, they are ignoring the appreciable diversity of AAPI communities, as well as the many disparities in education, income level, health outcomes, and other measures. Pew Research reports that Asian Americans are the most economically unequal group in the country and, as a group, have seen a dramatic increase since the 1970s in the number of its members living in poverty.
We can thank popular culture for perpetuating the myth of a monolithic "Asian" community. It is often the wealthy, successful Chinese- or Japanese-American professional or whiz kid who comes to mind, not the persecuted refugee from Southeast Asia whose pending deportation is a likely death sentence, or the poverty-stricken Pacific Islander caught in the net of mass incarceration. But as long as this "model minority" myth persists and people in power continue to use it as a wedge to seed hate and division, those of us not living the stereotypical "model" life will remain invisible.
I started the New Breath Foundation in 2017 in an attempt to address the lack of funding for AAPI immigrants and refugees, with a focus on those most likely to be impacted by incarceration, the threat of deportation, and violence. As a formerly incarcerated "juvenile lifer," I wanted to stand up for marginalized AAPI populations in the same way that many people stood up for me. People like Anmol Chaddha, then a student at the University of California, Berkeley, who, over the span of seven years, organized campaigns to support my release from prison and then from immigration detention. There are thousands of other AAPI immigrants and refugees in detention who deserve the chance at a decent life I got as a result of Anmol's efforts.
We support grassroots AAPI organizations that don't currently have a seat at the funding table. And we have connections to and trusted relationships with smaller, less-resourced, community-grown nonprofits that provide a lifeline to people who have nowhere else to turn. For example, without financial support from the New Breath Foundation, Sok Khoeun Loeun, a single father of three who was wrongfully deported to Cambodia, might not have received the legal advocacy and grassroots support that led to his being reunited with his family in the U.S.
Foundations must fund intersectional work that builds power and voice across all Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. To effectively build equity and address the harmful disparities affecting communities of color, philanthropy must look beyond stereotypes and public misconception to see the individuals whose lives are full, complex, and valuable. When we, as donors, take the time to get to know the unique and varied challenges that Asian Americans face and, more importantly, include them in our giving, we are modeling a fuller understanding of racial justice and our commitment to a truly pluralistic, multi-ethnic America.
(Photo credit: Stop AAPI Hate)
Eddy Zheng is founder and president of the New Breath Foundation.