CHICAGO — On the heels of a year that saw hate crimes against Asian Americans dramatically increase amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor of Illinois signed a law Friday requiring public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history – a move education experts say is the first of its kind nationwide.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act, which mandates “a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian American history, including the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest, as well as the contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward.”
The units are required by the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
“No state has ever done this,” said Sohyun An, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “It is a watershed moment in history in terms of teaching Asian American history in K-12 schools.”
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Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American who co-sponsored the bill, said it “helps create a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of American history for all students in Illinois and helps fight anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.”
“For the 100,000 Asian American K-12 students in Illinois, it ensures they see themselves accurately represented,” she said in a statement earlier this year. “Asian American history is American history.”
Gong-Gershowitz became emotional at the signing ceremony. She said her grandparents came to the U.S. in the 1920s and settled in Portland, but it wasn’t until law school that she first learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans.
“The TEAACH Act will ensure that the next generation of Asian Americans students won’t need to travel across the county or attend law school to learn something about their heritage,” Gong-Gershowitz said.
TEAACH Act in Illinois becomes law amid national push for ethnic studies
Stewart Kwoh, co-founder of the Asian American Education Project, called the Illinois bill a “pace-setting legislative measure.” About 10 states are considering something similar, he said.
“There’s a national movement to pass some kind of ethnic studies. There’s a struggle in terms of how the ethnic studies will be presented,” Kwoh said. “The schools are being forced to catch up to the interest.”
Some states are considering mandating “traditional ethnic studies programs,” such as a semester-long course on Asian American and Pacific Islander history, Kwoh said. Others are focused on integrating Asian American history into existing American history courses or offering shorter survey courses on various groups.
Oregon, for example, mandates an ethnic studies component in all grades, which incorporates Asian American and Pacific Islander content, according to Ting-Yi Oei, director of the Asian American Education Project. In California, an ethnic studies model curriculum was approved by the Board of Education in March, but no implementation plan for the state as a whole exists – it’s to be determined by local educational authorities, Oei said.
Crimes against Asian Americans spiked during COVID-19 pandemic
Lawmakers and activists have long been calling for public education dedicated to the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but the push gained increased attention amid the rise in hate crimes committed against those communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group Stop AAPI Hate collected reports of more than 6,600 hate incidents – which include both hate crimes and incidents of violence or discrimination – between March 2020 and March 2021. That month, a gunman opened fire on Atlanta-area spas, killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
In the first quarter of 2021, there was a more than 164% increase in anti-Asian hate crime reports to police in 16 major cities and jurisdictions compared with last year, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
In the spring of 2020, the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago responded to the rise in anti-Asian violence by launching a campaign to include Asian American history in schools, according to Grace Pai, the group’s executive director.
“We’ve seen examples in the Chicago area of people harassed or attacked because of their perceived identities, and I think everybody feels the need of something like this to address the root of the violence,” Pai said.
Kwoh’s nonprofit, the Asian American Education Project, spun out of the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice last year. The project offers more than 50 lesson plans for teachers and has started started hosting free teacher trainings, too.
‘I don’t remember ever learning about Asian American historical figures’
Illinois public school students spoke at the signing ceremony Friday about their experiences growing up without the kind of curriculum the TEAACH Act aims to provide.
Kiana Yoshiko Kenmotsu, a fourth-generation Japanese American and high school senior, said her AP U.S. History class once held a mock trial on the internment of Japanese Americans.
“I was incredulous when my classmates staunchly believed that my Korea War Veteran grandfather, 442nd Regiment great uncle and thousands of innocent Americans were rightfully incarcerated,” Kenmotsu said.
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Laura Houcque Prabhakar, a former student and now educator in Illinois public schools, said she wasn’t able to learn about her family history at home “due to refugee trauma.” With little sense of history to help ground her identity, Houcque Prabhakar said at a young age she struggled with what it meant to be Asian American.
“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,” said Houcque Prabhakar, a community leader with the Cambodian Association of Illinois.
She added: “The implementation of this bill will help us take actionable steps forward in acknowledging the humanity and diversity of our historically excluded communities.”
The Illinois bill comes after President Joe Biden in May signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which aims to speed up the review of pandemic-related hate crimes and provide grants to states to improve hate crime reporting. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., authored the legislation.
Follow Breaking News Reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck.