Illinois tackles anti-Asian hate with the TEAACH Act

Chicago: Illinois is poised to become the first state to require that public schools teach their students the history of Asian Americans, who have endured an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Illinois Senate passed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act, known as the TEAACH Act, by a unanimous vote of 57-0 on Tuesday. The legislation, introduced in January by Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview, passed the state House in April. The House has to approve a Senate amendment before it will head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk for his signature.

The bill would require every elementary and high school in the state to devote a unit of curriculum to the history of Asian Americans in the United States, including in Illinois and the Midwest. School districts would have until the start of the 2022-2023 school year to comply.The TEAACH Act requires schools to include in U.S. history courses the role that Asian Americans have played in advancing civil rights and highlight their contributions to the country’s development.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said education is one part of a “multipronged” strategy to tackle the rise in discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Addressing the issue will also require better hate crime reporting, more representation in government, and training people to be better bystanders who intervene when they witness anti-Asian harassment, he said.

Illinois Sen. Ram Villivalam — the first Asian American in the Illinois Senate — said laws like the TEAACH Act can help deter anti-Asian hate crimes and dispel the model minority myth that all Asian Americans are successful.

“We are also minorities,” said Villivalam, who is Indian American. “We need to make sure that our issues are also being taken in that same lens (as other minorities) and we stand together in solidarity.”

The TEAACH Act’s backers expressed hope that the legislation could help combat stereotypes and ignorance about Asian Americans that they said dehumanize and marginalize the group and create an environment in which acts of hate and violence against Asian Americans are accepted.

The bill gained momentum in the aftermath of a series of mass shootings, first at several Atlanta-area spas in March that killed eight people, including six Asian women, then at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in April that killed four members of the Sikh community.

“Unfortunately, this really stark rise in anti-Asian violence has played a role in people’s willingness to take action,” said Grace Pai, director of organizing at Asian Americans Advancing Justice ‘ Chicago, which helped draft the legislative language, worked closely with the bill’s sponsors, and coordinated outreach efforts.

If the TEAACH Act is signed into law, the superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education could prepare free teaching materials for local school boards to use in developing curricula about Asian American history. But the bill leaves most of the details up to individual districts and schools.

One of the bill’s sponsors is Illinois State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, who became the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2016. Mah was also one of the first Asian American studies professors at Northwestern University, after students went on a hunger strike to demand the creation of an Asian American Studies Program in the 1990s.

Mah said she hopes teaching Asian American history in schools will help dispel the stereotype of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. During debate about the bill, she shared a story about sitting outside the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, when a group of middle-school-aged kids passed by and one of them asked, “Who are the Ching Chongs?” while the others laughed.

(The nonprofit news outlet Injustice Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News)

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