Illinois Becomes First State to Mandate Teaching Asian American History

The move arrives amid a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929
Group portrait of three Chinese children, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, in a room in Chicago, 1929 Photo by Chicago Sun-Times / Chicago Daily News collection / Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Illinois is now the first state to require public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history.

Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act (TEAACH) into law last Friday. Per a statement, the legislation—set to take effect in elementary and high schools across the state in the 2022-23 school year—calls for instruction on Asian American history in Illinois and the Midwest, as well as contributions made by Asian Americans in such diverse fields as the arts, sciences and civil rights.

State legislators introduced the bill amid a surge in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Last year, reports Masood Farivar for Voice of America, anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the United States’ most populous cities increased almost 150 percent over the previous year. Many in the AAPI community attributed the uptick at least in part to the racist language used by former President Donald Trump and his allies when describing the coronavirus. More recently, writes Kimmy Yam for NBC News, researchers documented a 169 percent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes during the first quarter of 2021.

“Asian American history is American history. Yet we are often invisible,” says State Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, who co-sponsored the legislation, in the statement. “... Empathy comes from understanding. We cannot do better unless we know better. A lack of knowledge is the root cause of discrimination and the best weapon against ignorance is education.”

A third-generation Chinese American, Gong-Gershowitz tells the Pantagraph’s Peter Hancock that she only learned about the U.S.’ lengthy history of discriminating against Asian Americans—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which directly affected her own family, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II—upon reaching law school.

“Throughout elementary, high school and college, none of this history was covered in my social studies classes,” she explains. “… My family’s history had been deliberately hidden by my grandparents, who like many other first-generation Americans, were desperate to survive and saw the discrimination that they endured as an impediment to the success of the next generation.”

Sohyun An, an expert on elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, tells USA Today’s Grace Hauck that the TEAACH Act’s passage marks “a watershed moment in history in terms of teaching Asian American history in K-12 schools.”

She adds, “No state has ever done this.”

Another ten states are currently considering similar measures, says Stewart Kwoh, co-founder of the Asian American Education Project (AAEdu), to USA Today. Some plan to introduce semester-long courses focused on specific aspects of Asian American history, while others hope to integrate new units into existing classes.

The nonprofit organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago (AAAJC) spearheaded efforts to pass the legislation. As Yam notes in a separate NBC News article, the law gives individual school boards leeway to determine the minimum amount of instruction that constitutes a unit, raising the possibility that “the depth of instruction” will vary depending on the district. To support teachers revising their classes’ content, AAEdu is offering free trainings and making more than 50 comprehensive lesson plans available online.

Though legislators and activists have long supported Asian American studies, the push to mandate instruction of Asian American history in schools gained a renewed sense of urgency during the Covid-19 pandemic. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate coalition documented more than 6,600 hate incidents–including verbal harassment, physical assault and civil rights violations—across the country. In March, a gunman in Atlanta murdered eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

Lawmakers and activists hope the measure will help create a more inclusive environment, curb discrimination and empower Asian American students.

Growing up, says Laura Houcque Prabhakar, an educator and community leader with the Cambodian Association of Illinois, to USA Today, “I don’t remember ever learning about Asian American historical figures or about Southeast Asian refugees like my own family, who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide. What I do remember is feeling a lack of pride in my heritage.”

Research suggests that ethnic studies courses can boost students of color’s morale and encourage them to learn about their heritage. In 2016, Stanford scholars found that enrollment in an ethnic studies class boosted attendance and academic performance among high school students at risk of dropping out. Such courses are only growing in popularity, the National Education Association (NEA) reported last year. Oregon, for instance, requires ethnic studies instruction in all grades.

“A lot of the legislation around these kinds of curricular decisions are often symbolic. They are signals by legislators of priorities and where they stand and about what's important to the state,” Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist at Tufts University, tells NBC News. “What really happens on the ground is going to vary tremendously [depending on] local politics, depending on the staff and the feelings of capacity on who the student body is.”

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