Originally published on NBC 5 on July 9, 2021.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday signed into law a new measure making Illinois the first state in the U.S. to require Asian American history be taught in public schools.
Pritzker signed House Bill 376, the Teaching Equitable Asian American History or TEAACH Act, at Niles West High School in suburban Skokie.
The new law requires every public elementary and high school in the state to devote a unit of curriculum to the history of Asian Americans in the United States.
"We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history," Pritzker said in a statement. "It’s a new standard that helps us understand one another, and, ultimately, to move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals."
The curriculum must include "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 legislation reads.
"These events shall include the contributions made by individual Asian Americans in government and the arts, humanities, and sciences, as well as the contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States," per the new law.
The law takes effect on Jan. 1 and the requirement begins with the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
The legislation, introduced in January by state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview, passed the House in April and the Senate in May.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said education is one part of a “multipronged” strategy to tackle the rise in discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Addressing the issue will also require better hate crime reporting, more representation in government, and training people to be better bystanders who intervene when they witness anti-Asian harassment, he said.
Villivalam — the first Asian American in the Illinois Senate — said laws like the TEAACH Act can help deter anti-Asian hate crimes and dispel the model minority myth that all Asian Americans are successful.
“We are also minorities,” said Villivalam, who is Indian American. “We need to make sure that our issues are also being taken in that same lens (as other minorities) and we stand together in solidarity.”
The TEAACH Act’s backers expressed hope that the legislation could help combat stereotypes and ignorance about Asian Americans that they said dehumanize and marginalize the group and create an environment in which acts of hate and violence against Asian Americans are accepted.
The bill gained momentum in the aftermath of a series of mass shootings, first at several Atlanta-area spas in March that killed eight people, including six Asian women, then at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in April that killed four members of the Sikh community.
“Unfortunately, this really stark rise in anti-Asian violence has played a role in people’s willingness to take action,” said Grace Pai, director of organizing at Asian Americans Advancing Justice ' Chicago, which helped draft the legislative language, worked closely with the bill’s sponsors, and coordinated outreach efforts.
Under the new law, the superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education could prepare free teaching materials for local school boards to use in developing curricula about Asian American history. But the bill leaves most of the details up to individual districts and schools.
One of the bill’s sponsors was Illinois State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, who became the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2016. Mah was also one of the first Asian American studies professors at Northwestern University, after students went on a hunger strike to demand the creation of an Asian American Studies Program in the 1990s.
Mah said she hopes teaching Asian American history in schools will help dispel the stereotype of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. During debate about the bill, she shared a story about sitting outside the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, when a group of middle-school-aged kids passed by and one of them asked, “Who are the Ching Chongs?” while the others laughed.
“Asian Americans tend to experience this othering,” she said. “People see us as not belonging to the country, not ‘real’ Americans.”
Sohyun An, a professor of social studies education at the Kennesaw State University whose work is grounded in critical race theory, said the way that schools teach Asian American history has real-world implications.
In 2016, An examined how Asian American history is taught in 10 states and found that history lessons about Asian Americans tend to focus almost exclusively on early Chinese immigrants and Japanese internment camps during World War II. These lessons reinforce stereotypes about Asian Americans as “forever foreigners” and teach students that Asian Americans are “an economic and military threat to the United States,” An said.
These racist stereotypes of Asian Americans fueled the rise in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, she said.
“What’s being written in class, what’s being included or not included — or when they’re included, how they’re being represented — it’s not just a scholarly or academic debate,” An said. “It’s a life-and-death issue.”
Albert Chan, a history teacher in Skokie, said a close read of American history shows that events such as the Atlanta-area shootings or the anti-Asian hate stoked by former President Donald Trump are nothing new. Since the 1800s, Asian Americans have been depicted as dirty and carrying diseases, and Asian women as sex workers, Chan said. Such characterizations have been used to stoke resentment against Asians living in America that has erupted into violence before.
“It’s a resurgence of those old stereotypes,” he said, “that now explode into these acts of violence against Asian people.”
An said what’s often missing in school curricula are lessons highlighting the history of Asian Americans fighting for civil rights, including the 1965 Filipino farmworker unionization, the 1885 California Supreme Court decision in Tape v. Hurley that desegregated schools for Chinese Americans, and the Yellow Power Movement of the 1970s. Instead, Asian Americans are depicted as a “successful, hardworking, law-abiding, compliant minority,” which serves to erase their long history of resisting oppression, An wrote in an article in the journal Theory & Research in Social Education.
Education scholars call the lack of representation and accuracy in curricula “curriculum violence.” An said the phrase refers to the ways that lack of representation in school “kills the spirit and humanity of nonwhite youth” and sends a message to white students that others are racially inferior and unworthy of this country.
“The dominant white group (is) using the model minority myth to control minority groups who are suffering under a white supremacist system,” An said. “They are pitting minority groups against minority groups, so they are fighting each other when they should be united to fight against this whole system.”