Anti-Asian hate incidents continue to rise across the country, one legislator seeks to combat racism with a new law requiring Asian American studies in public schools
Illinois state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz said she wants to fight "ignorance" with the Teaching Equitable Asian-American History Act (TEAACH). The legislation would mandate curriculums on the social, political and economic contributions of Asian Americans in the U.S. starting in the 2022-2023 school year. If it passes, it will be the first law of its kind in the nation.
"What we learn by teaching Asian American history is that our history is American history," Gong-Gershowitz told ABC News. "While the Asian American experience has been one of both accomplishments and contributions, there is also a long history of racialized violence and exclusion."
Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American, said that it is more important "now than ever to elevate Asian American stories and experiences so that people understand who we are."
The legislation, House Bill 0376 will ensure that events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 -- which banned immigration from China -- and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II will be covered in the curriculum.
Gong-Gershowitz said she graduated from the Illinois public school system without ever learning about these dark moments in history.
"I've learned that my own experience is similar to many Asian Americans, not only in Illinois, but throughout the country," Gong-Gershowitz said, "where being invisible in our classrooms has meant an internalization of our own experiences as being separate and distinct from that of the American experience."
Anti-Asian hate has been on the rise since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks anti-Asian hate incidents, received more than 6,600 reports of hate incidents since March 19, 2020.
And reports of anti-Asian hate incidents rose by nearly 150% in major U.S. cities from 2019 to 2020, according to a study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Gong-Gershowitz and Dr. Russell Jeung, an Asian American Studies professor at San Francisco State University and the co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, say that stereotypes, ignorance and racism are behind the uptick in bias incidents.
Jeung said that ethnic studies plays an important role in teaching students empathy, helping them understand America's long history of racism, and helping them learn to uproot it.
"Ethnic studies is one of the top police recommendations at Stop AAPI Hate because we want to get at the roots of racism, and we want to develop long-term solutions," Jeung said. "One of the solutions is educating Americans about the disgrace of racism, the harm of racism and how we can just address it."
Jeung said that culturally responsive education teaches critical thinking and cultural understanding and plays a vital role in giving nuance to communities of color.
The bill also features requirements about teaching the history of several other ethnic and racial groups, as well as LGBTQ history and the labor movement.
"In the absence of education, what fills that void are harmful stereotypes," Gong-Gershowitz said. "While we have seen a shameful rise in anti-Asian hate and acts of violence against Asian Americans over the last year, we also know that these are not isolated incidents and that anti-Asian racism is nothing new."
At least six states, including Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, have introduced bills that aim to place limitations on lessons about race and inequality being taught in American schools -- an effort by some Republicans to target critical race theory -- an academic concept about systemic racism.
None of the bills directly mention critical race theory in their text, but the legislators pushing these bills forward have invoked the educational movement while advocating for the legislation.
"If we don't teach history through the lens of those whose voices have been silenced, whose voices have been marginalized," Gong-Gershowitz said, "you are missing an important part of what it means to contribute to a diverse nation that is comprised of a diverse peoples who are woven into the American fabric."