In October 2017, several Asian-American civil rights groups collectively known as the “Asian American Federation” descended on Trump Tower in Midtown to protest the President’s attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era executive order that grants a degree of amnesty to the children of illegal immigrants. A number of prominent political figures attended the demonstration, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), each of whom gave speeches alongside the groups’ leaders, many of them veterans of New York left-wing activism.
Christopher Kui, former executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, which is one of the member organizations of the Asian American Federation that attended the demonstration, spoke out against the President’s actions: “We all have an obligation to hold up the ideals of our country and in no way does that include deporting the American Dream.”
But the seemingly innocuous affordable housing and community development organization seems to have an unorthodox interpretation of the “American Dream.”
About 20 years ago, Asian Americans for Equality created the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation to help them buy up cheap housing to rent out to their members at below market rates. Another project of theirs, “Equality House,” was the first organization in New York City to use the federal low-income housing tax credit, a government credit set up in 1986 that subsidizes construction projects undertaken by organizations like Asian Americans for Equality. Asian Americans for Equality boasts to have developed over 800 housing units, having secured about $416 million in mortgage financing for home buyers over the course of their existence. Renaissance also gives loans to Asian Americans for Equality members to seed new businesses. According to Asian Americans for Equality’s website, they have given out 1,200 loans, totaling $50 million, to small businesses through Renaissance over the last two decades.
Asian Americans for Equality works closely with Renaissance to this day according to their tax records. Renaissance operates in three neighborhoods: Chinatown, Manhattan; Flushing, Queens; and Jackson Heights, Queens, where Asian Americans for Equality just opened a brand new office. (Congressional-star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) even joined in on their celebration.) Chinatown and Flushing are predominately Asian-American demographically and culturally, especially Flushing, “Where Asian Cultures Thrive” as the New York Times put it, with an ethnic majority of 69.2 percent. Indeed, in March 2017, Asian Americans for Equality invested $1.5 million into small businesses in Flushing for the express purpose of “promoting and supporting Flushing’s vibrant business and cultural community.”
In February 2016, Asian Americans for Equality teamed up with the Flushing Chamber of Commerce to launch the Flushing 2050 Community Building Initiative to “figure out how to zone and prepare properly for the next 35 years.” Flushing Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Chloe said the initiative is not only about “helping people feed their families but also job creation.” The project is being funded by the Citi Foundation and the Low-Income Investment Fund.
There are no racial restrictions to their membership enrollment, but they do seem to work in predominately Asian areas and represent themselves as a force for Asian identity: “Asian Americans for Equality is a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of Asian Americans and all of those in need,” reads their mission statement.
Not only do they provide housing and business investment, but they also help their members apply for government assistance programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” and the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemptions (SCRIE).
But where do they get money to fund these programs?
According to FoundationSearch, Asian Americans for Equality has received major donations from the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, the United Way of New York City, the M&T Charitable Foundation, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, JM Kaplan Fund, MetLife Foundation, and JP Morgan Chase Foundation. While private donors give Asian Americans for Equality substantial grants, these gifts do not account for the entirety of the group’s $6 million-plus revenue. The New York state and federal governments make up the difference.
Asian Americans for Equality lists multiple government agencies on the federal, state, and municipal levels as “supporters,” such as the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), New York State Housing Trust Fund, New York State Office of Children and Family Services, New York City Department of Housing, Preservation & Development, and the New York City Department of Small Business Services.
On top of that, they became a member of NeighborWorks America in 2008, a group that was chartered by Congress in 1978 and that receives operating grants from the government every year. NeighborWorks’ website explains that they are required to send their budget to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress every year due to their reliance on government funding.
Back in 1997, critics began questioning Asian Americans for Equality’s adherence to its founding principles: ”AAFE gave up its beliefs for real estate development and political power,” said Hunter College professor Peter Kwong, according to the New York Times. Protestors were showing up to their headquarters and other social service agencies refused to work with them due to their alleged greed.
But, those founding principles weren’t so innocent. In fact, they had early ties to the Communist Workers’ Party, a radical Marxist group from the 70s and 80s which identified with Maoism. Maoism is, of course, named after Mao Zedong, the famous Chairman of Communist China whose “Great Leap Forward”—a program designed to rapidly accelerate the country’s economic and agricultural production—ended in failure, causing a man-made famine that killed as many as 55 million people, according to historian Yu Xiguang.
Asian Americans for Equality themselves make note of their “activist roots in Manhattan’s Chinatown.” Margaret Chin, a former member of Asian Americans for Equality and currently a New York City Council member overseeing Chinatown and Lower Manhattan, was photographed alongside Communist Workers’ Party spokesperson Mike Young and was listed as a member of the group in a 1979 article by the New York Times, which reported on a march organized by the Communist Workers Party that devolved into a violent shootout.
An archived version of Asian Americans for Equality’s website goes into more detail: Chin was a founder and a president of Asian Americans for Equality. She has also been:
the chair of the New York Immigration Coalition, board member of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, and founder of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation [in addition to having served on] Manhattan Community Board 1 and 3, and the New York State Democratic Committee.
While journalist Richard Brookhiser claims that Asian Americans for Equality and Communist Workers’ Party’s Manhattan chapter shared the same office and phone number for years, former Executive Director Christopher Kui denied his group had “any” communist association. But it is clear that at least one of Asian Americans for Equality’s leaders, as Emory University professor Harvey Klehr documents, had communist ties, so Kui’s denials ring false.
How much of the group’s current actions—aggressive politicking against capitalism—are still informed by the philosophy that guided its early history?
It would be unfair to insinuate that Asian Americans for Equality’s roots in Maoism reveal that they actually want to start a violent revolution. Realistically, it only reveals that they have a philosophy highly sympathetic to authoritarian centralized government, which their practices corroborate. Helping the disadvantaged and the elderly obtain housing and food is a respectable and worthwhile endeavor. However, many philanthropies on the Left do not provide the services they advocate for, but instead shift the responsibility onto the government.
Instead of advocating for government intervention and perpetuating the welfare state, Asian Americans for Equality might support private institutions which help underserved members of the community.