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Illinois becomes first state to require teaching Asian American history in schools

The law mandates that schools teach "the contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States," in addition to Asian American civil rights advancements.
/ Source: NBC News

Illinois has become the first state to mandate that Asian American history be part of its public school curriculum.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill Friday that requires elementary and high schools to teach a unit of Asian American history beginning in the 2022-23 school year. The historic legislation, which passed after an aggressive campaign led in part by the nonprofit group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

Sociology professor Natasha Warikoo, a scholar of racial and ethnic inequality in education at Tufts University, said that the legislation is no doubt a win but that it is likely to be up to the educators and the community to determine how heavily schools will emphasize the teachings.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act into law Friday. Illinois is the first state to require teaching a unit of Asian American history in public schools.Office of Governor J.B. Pritzker

"A lot of the legislation around these kinds of curricular decisions are often symbolic. They are signals by legislators of priorities and where they stand and about what's important to the state," Warikoo said. "What really happens on the ground is going to vary tremendously," depending on "local politics, depending on the staff and the feelings of capacity on who the student body is."

The legislation mandates that schools teach "the contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States" in addition to Asian American civil rights advancements, among other aspects of history. While it says the state superintendent of education may provide materials that can be used as guidelines for the curriculum, the law allows each school board to determine the minimum amount of time required to qualify as a unit of instruction.

Warikoo said that schools often aim to ensure that material is taught to a specific standard by including questions about the topics in standardized testing but that the tactic doesn't necessarily account for the depth of instruction.

"Some teachers might take it upon themselves to do all this reading in the summer, to pull together materials, to write new curricular content, but for the most part we can't really expect that. And that's not really part of the job," Warikoo said. "If there is training and resources provided, I think that is the best way to ensure that it actually has an impact."

Warikoo said including Asian American history in the curriculum is critical to change discriminatory perceptions.

"There's research on Asian Americans, and it shows that a majority of people are more likely to see Asians as foreign. You see an Asian face, you assume they're foreign. And I think that's in part because we don't know the history of Asians in the United States," she said. "I think that it can attenuate those kinds of biases towards Asian Americans by making them part of U.S. history."

Debate over critical race theory, the academic study of the impact of racism, has caused an uproar among educators, legislators and other groups. Warikoo said it's difficult to determine whether the law, which inevitably touches on race, could move the conversation forward, particularly because many who oppose such academic study haven't been clear about precisely what element they oppose. However, she said, she suspects that the bill was able to generate support with little opposition because of how it has been described.

"The Asian American history legislation is palatable because it can be framed as a diversity thing, not as 'we're talking about racism,'" Warikoo said. "Whites feel extremely hurt by that accusation — that either they are racist or that they've benefited from racism. ... The phrase 'white supremacy' is also triggering in a way that 'Asian American history' is not."