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  • Matthew Tsui

Illinois’s Pioneering Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act

On July 9, Governor Pritzker of Illinois signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act (TEAACH). [1] After a series of deadly anti-Asian attacks, including the Atlanta spa shootings and the FedEx Sikh shooting, the bill gained momentum. This will reshape the face of Asian American history education. Specifically, it mandates that Asian American history will be taught in all Illinois public schools starting in the 2022-2023 educational cycle. With the passage of this act, Illinois will be entering uncharted territory; it is the first state in the United States to have this racial education requirement.

Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has dictated life as we know it. Unfortunately, another tragic issue has arisen in its midst: the rise of Asian American hate crimes.[2] Specifically, as the pain of the pandemic grew, many Americans blamed Asian Americans, as the virus had originated from Wuhan, China. At the beginning of the pandemic, many lawmakers may have contributed to the uptick in Asian American hate crimes. For example, Republican Chip Roy of Texas started his introductory remarks with a length bashing of the Chinese’ government’s coronavirus restriction methods rather than addressing the issues in the United States.[3] Even with objections from the AAPI community, he continued to defend his actions, believing that any criticisms would be violating his first amendment rights of free speech, stating that “we need more justice and less thought policing." Similarly, President Trump defended and increasingly practiced calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung-Flu.” Trump argued that he was calling the virus “China” in response to the disinformation campaign by Beijing that the American military gave China the virus. [3]This sparked anger from both China and US lawmakers, as it not only increased tensions with China but fueled homegrown xenophobia. As Democrat Ted Lieu of California argues, “I am not a virus. Moreover, things like that hurts the Asian-American community.”

Furthermore, Lieu argued that no matter the number of political points their use of racist, ethnic-directed terms were garnering, it was outweighed by the harm done to the Asian American community. Unfortunately, the use of anti-Chinese terms has evolved into a partisan fault line, with the Republicans largely following Roy and Trump’s combative tone. In addition, some Americans blamed the Chinese for the COVID-19 spread for their culture of eating bats and dogs, and unfounded accusation and racist stereotype.

With lawmakers' whirlwind of stereotypes and persistent inciteful messages, the number of reported anti-Asian attacks has risen drastically during the pandemic. However, Connie Joe, CEO of the civil rights group Asian Americans advancing justice, hypothesizes that hate crimes are way higher than reported. She believed that several issues contributed to the underreported numbers, including a “language barrier, cultural barrier, and no trust in law enforcement.” In light of the #DefundthePolice movement, many community members believe that the police either lack the power or are unwilling to help out, so they feel that reporting the crimes is useless. Between March 19 and December 31, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate received 2,808 instances of anti-Asian hate from 47 states and the District of Columbia. Russel Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies, found that report cases surpassed 3,000 by March of 2021. He attributed this surge during the pandemic to both COVID-19 and Trump’s political rhetoric.[3] In addition, many of these attacks are targeted at vulnerable women and the elderly, with reports of being slashed across the face, attacked with chemicals, punched, or even shoved to the ground. For example, in February of 2021, Kim, an Air Force veteran, was attacked by two men in Los Angelos, who shouted, “all f-ing Asians gotta die.”[2] These incidents have proven quite traumatizing for the United States. On January 26, 2021, President Biden signed a memorandum promising that action would be taken to combat racism, xenophobia, and crimes against the AAPI community.

Thus, it is ever so important to teach correct Asian American history in school. Asian American history has long been left out of textbooks, and thus when the students do not hear about Asian Americans, they feel distant and far more foreign. When Asian Americans were present, they were framed as vulnerable groups that the United States saved. As a result, much of the US’s history of excluding Asian Americans, along with their valuable contributions to society were omitted. Hartlep, a professor at Berea College, found that K-12 textbooks ranged from poorly representing Asian Americans to containing racist caricatures.[4] Furthermore, he found that only Chinese and Japanese immigrants were included, and their agency was glossed over. For example, while we often learn about Japanese internment camps during WWII, we never hear about Asian activists who transformed the United States. Notably, Larry Itliong, a Filipino farmworker, led strikes alongside Chavez; Saund, the first Asian American Congress member, advocate for immigrants’ rights; and Kochiyama, who fought for civil rights.[1]

What exactly will this new TEAACH act do? After passing with a unanimous vote of 57-0 on June 1, 2021, every elementary and high school in Illinois will be required to devote a whole unit to the history of Asian Americans.[1] Additionally, emphasis must be put on the role of Asian Americans towards advancing civil rights, including the contributions of Kochiyama and Poo. Furthermore, Asian American contributions to the United State’s developments will be highlighted, with Eric Yuan’s ZOOM software and Bhatt’s contributions to the USB being mentioned in the unit. Senator Villivalama of Chicago stated that education is a critical part of the multipronged strategy to reduce discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.[4] This law will also be crucial to dispelling dangerous stereotypes and myths. For example, the model minority stereotype: not all Asian Americans are good at math, subservient, and act as doctors. While mandating correct history education is essential, this is a tiny step to achieving a far bigger goal. Precisely, more states must follow suit. Finally, without better reporting, representation in government, and bystander training, Asian American hate crimes will never be reduced.



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