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New Illinois Law To Require Asian-American History In Public Schools


The Asian American community is one of the fastest growing in the U.S. today, but very little about its history is taught in public schools across the country. Some schools do teach the history of internment of about 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but many Asian Americans say their story is certainly larger and more complex. There's a new law in Illinois. The Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act will now require state public schools to add an Asian American history curriculum, and it goes into effect in the academic year of 2022.

Illinois State Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz co-sponsored the bill and joins us now from Glenview, Ill. Thanks very much for being with us, Representative.

JENNIFER GONG-GERSHOWITZ: Thank you so much for having me. Great to be with you.

SIMON: What do you hope this bill will do for schools?

GONG-GERSHOWITZ: Well, the TEAACH Act is fundamentally at its core about building empathy. All students benefit from a comprehensive curriculum where history includes diverse perspectives, one that includes historically marginalized voices. I don't think we can possibly hope to understand our present without an honest and comprehensive understanding of our past. This bill is about increasing our understanding of one another, giving both Asian and non-Asian students an opportunity to see one another.

SIMON: I'm told your grandparents immigrated from China in the 1920s, raised five children, went on to become doctors and veterans, but you say you didn't really kind of learn your family's story or the dimensions of it until law school.

GONG-GERSHOWITZ: That's exactly right. I'm a graduate of Illinois public schools, and yet I knew nothing about Asian American history until I studied the constitutionality of race-based immigration laws like the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s when I was in law school. It wasn't until then that I discovered my own family's painful history of fighting deportation under the Chinese Exclusion Acts for over a decade, and it wasn't until I was an adult that I had the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of who I am as an Asian American and where I fit in the larger context of American history.

SIMON: What stories do you hope the curriculum will include?

GONG-GERSHOWITZ: Asian Americans have been part of the fabric of American history, but we have often been invisible. Our contributions to the fight for civil rights, for example, just one example of the breadth of experiences that Asian Americans bring to American history when it's taught in such a way that includes not only the contributions of Asian Americans in the sense that our stories of exclusion and discrimination are told, but also our agency and the times that Asian Americans have stepped up to be part of the conversation around race and civil rights.

SIMON: Did you feel a special sense of urgency in view of the rise of attack against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic?

GONG-GERSHOWITZ: I did. I asked my colleagues to step up and do something about it. As we all know, the root cause of discrimination is ignorance. And the best weapon that we have against ignorance is education. We simply cannot expect to do better unless we know better. Ultimately, the TEAACH Act passed both the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan majority support, and Illinois has really set the bar.

SIMON: Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz of Illinois' 17th District, thank you so much for being with us.

GONG-GERSHOWITZ: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.