Asian community members march for immigrant rights Photo credit Chinese for Affirmative Action

Taking on Wedge Politics

On race, wedge politics, and what philanthropy can do

Program director Cathy Cha guest blogs for the Bay Area Justice Funders Network on how foundations can help confront tough issues as they come up.

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With people of color now firmly in the majority in California, the long-term outlook for progressive causes in the state is bright. But conservatives got a taste of a winning formula last year when they used wedge politics to divide communities of color during a dust-up over affirmative action in higher education. African Americans and Latinos were in the pro-affirmative action camp, but some Chinese and Indians in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community were vocal in their opposition, often using divisive and racist arguments to make their case.

At the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, we were alarmed about the divisions that surfaced during that debate. We care deeply about the future of our home state, and we believe California will be stronger to the extent that people of color stand together. We work on issues like immigrant rights where building coalitions across lines of race and ethnicity is critical to success.

As we surveyed the damage from the affirmative action debate, we began to ask ourselves some questions:

  • How could we support our grantees and their allies to take on issues of race and racism in the AAPI community head-on?
  • How could we help build stronger partnerships between the AAPI, African American and Latino communities for progressive fights in the years to come?
  • How could we inoculate these groups against the divisions of wedge politics as we look ahead to 2016 and beyond?

With these questions in mind, the Haas, Jr. Fund and Chinese for Affirmative Action convened two meetings of a cross-section of AAPI leaders. During the discussions, the groups agreed on several important steps to reduce racism and promote interracial understanding and collaboration. One of these steps was to organize a joint meeting with African American and Latino allies to identify common ground policy issues. Another was to create a curriculum and “toolkit”* that groups could use to proactively address stereotypes and racism in Asian communities.

The idea for the toolkit came from an AAPI organizer in one of the meetings who commented that racial tensions are an undercurrent in nearly all of her organization’s work—whether the issue is education, land use, jobs or crime. She said activists need support so they can have transformative conversations about race and racism, beat back stereotypes, educate Asian immigrants about U.S. civil rights history, and advance understanding among AAPI communities that we are all in this together.

The toolkit is currently in production with the support of the California Endowment, California Wellness Foundation, Gerbode Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy and the Haas, Jr. Fund. These funders are also supporting a companion series of train-the-trainer sessions to equip more than 500 AAPI organizers and community leaders to bring these racial justice conversations to communities across the state and country.

Working with AAPI leaders and other foundations through this process has helped me see how justice funders have an important role to play in supporting grantees and others to address race issues head-on. Funders helped spur the tough conversations that AAPI groups needed to have to fight racism in their community. We created a neutral space where we could speak candidly and also work side-by-side in “co-designing” solutions.

The racial justice toolkit won’t heal all of the tensions among people of color communities. But it’s a start—and it’s based on the understanding that an important first step is addressing racism in our own communities.

Last year’s debate over affirmative action got pretty ugly at times. But in the end, it may have planted the seeds for real and lasting progress to strengthen relationships among AAPI, Black and Latino communities in California. It also planted the seeds for the Haas, Jr. Fund to expand our understanding of what philanthropy can do to advance civil rights.

At a time when events in Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities and towns closer to home remind us that America’s civil rights struggles are far from finished, funders can’t shy away from issues of race. Rather, philanthropy needs to be a unifying voice and a leader in bridging the fault lines that divide us.

*The AAPI Racial Justice Toolkit project is being spearheaded by the new statewide network, AAPIs for Civic Empowerment (Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Chinese Progressive Association, Filipino Advocates for Justice, and Korean Resource Center).