By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Community champions who have fought for inclusion of the Asian American experience in the public consciousness for years, even decades, are weighing in on the landmark law signed July 9 by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, making his state the first to ensure that every high school graduate will learn about Asian American history.

“I was inspired to hear this news,” said Ann Burroughs, Japanese American National Museum president and chief executive officer. “We know many Americans didn’t learn this history at school. And that’s why, for nearly three decades, the museum has highlighted how 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, saw their civil rights violated, their families and communities dislocated, forcibly removed and incarcerated.

“The museum has steadfastly believed in the power of truth-telling through exhibits and programs that retell the Japanese American story — and this includes the painful chapter of America’s concentration camps fueled by World War II hysteria and racism.”

State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz

Under the new legislation, Illinois becomes the first state to add the study of Asian American history to the state school code (curriculum). Beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, every public elementary school and high school in Illinois will be required to include a unit about the Asian American experience.

“This is just one example of important Asian American history that can perhaps be taught in Illinois schools,” Burroughs emphasized. “The history of Japanese Americans is also so much more — it’s about cultural and social contributions that are wonderful, often overlooked stories. From sports stars to notable politicians, artists to astronauts, the museum aspires to show how these contributions build a better nation, a nation that is stronger because of its diversity.”

“Asian American history is American history. Yet we are often invisible,” declared Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), who co-sponsored the bill.

Warren Furutani, former California state assemblyman and the first Asian American to serve on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, is encouraged by the news but is wondering how long it will take for California to do the same.

“The ethnic studies requirement and classes they’re talking about in California are constantly getting mired in the debate as to who it’s going to be about, what’s going to be said, and now there’s this big issue about CRT (critical race theory) that is bringing about a whole political pushback. So, this (new law in Illinois) is pretty extraordinary.”

Critical race theory refers to the study of systemic and institutional racism throughout history. Some groups, predominantly political conservatives, oppose the teaching of this theory.

“(In California), they’re rewriting the course study,” said Furutani, who currently serves as senior advisor to City Councilmember Kevin de Leon. “There’s been debate as to what’s going to be in it, what’s not going to be in it. There’s debate about what groups are going to be covered. For example: Are Jewish Americans going to be covered relative to ethnic studies or is it just going to be the four main groups — Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American?

“Then the debate gets extended into probably the politics of CRT, where people are saying, ‘It’s too negative or it’s only talking about racism or it’s only talking about things that happen to people of color. So, that’s all being sorted out,” he explained.

Regarding CRT, Burroughs added, “History is enhanced by facts. This is not about substituting theory or opinions. Illinois has set an important standard, one that I hope other state houses will emulate. Without learning the lessons of history, and understanding how history shapes us, how can we ever hope to influence the present and build a more just future?” 

“Schools teaching U.S. history have often overlooked the voices of women, people of color, different faiths, and different backgrounds,” said Burroughs, but in contrast, “Illinois is already adept at incorporating more history: In 1990, it was the first state in the nation to mandate teaching about the Holocaust in all public elementary and high schools.”

“From the very beginning,” added Furutani, “it’s been about relevant education … but it’s got to be in the context of the broader American story.”

In Pritzker’s first year in office, he signed a bill requiring Illinois schools to include the positive contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals to foster welcoming classrooms for students of all gender identities.

The Pritzker administration also created the Affirming and Inclusive Schools Task Force to identify strategies to ensure supportive school environments and disrupt patterns of discrimination. Earlier this year, Pritzker’s administration reaffirmed their commitment to lifelong education by expanding Black history education requirements.

Burroughs noted that Illinois will give each school board the local decision-making power to decide how each district will teach Asian American history. “Local school officials will be able to decide what curricula is appropriate for its students, and at what age.” 

“The beauty of education is learning something new,” said Burroughs. “When the pandemic closed our doors, the museum hosted more than 4,000 virtual visits for schoolchildren from as far as Maine and Japan. We often hear from students that they learned history that had never been presented to them.”

The bill, co-sponsored by Gong-Gershowitz and State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), specifies that the curriculum should include:

• The contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward.

• The contributions made by individual Asian Americans in government, arts, humanities, and sciences.

• The contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States.

“It occurred to us that this was the best way for us to respond to the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia,” said Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American who says she didn’t learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major federal legislation restricting immigration, or about the internment of Japanese Americans until she was in law school.

According to Stewart Kwoh, president emeritus of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and co-founder of the Asian American Education Project, 10 other states are deliberating similar bills.

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