States are mandating Asian American history lessons to stop bigotry

(Sally Deng/For The Washington Post)

As anti-Asian attacks surge nationwide, a movement is hoping to combat hate with history, pushing states to require lessons on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in public schools.

Illinois and New Jersey require such classes, and Connecticut’s governor is expected to sign legislation soon. Other states such as New York have bills pending that would mandate them. A growing number of lawmakers, along with teachers, students, parents and business leaders, aim to head off these attacks partly by teaching children that the Asian American community is American, too — and that Asian American history is also American history.

Most curricula afford scant attention to the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. When textbooks do include lessons, they focus primarily on East Asians instead of the broader set of people with roots across the continent. AAPIs were the fastest growing racial group from 2010 to 2020, with an increase of 35.5 percent, according to the census. They total 24 million, or 7 percent of the total U.S. population, but represent around 2 percent of teachers in public K–12 schools, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, a figure that has remained unchanged over the last 20 years.

Since the start of the pandemic, attacks against this group have increased, especially against elders, as well as AAPI-owned businesses. Hate crimes rose to highest level in 12 years amid increasing attacks on Asian and Black people, according to the FBI. President Biden cited these trends when he signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act last May, which focuses Justice Department attention on hate crimes related to the pandemic.

These attacks came to a head with the Atlanta shooting, which took the lives of six Asian women last March, leaving one-third of Asian Americans fearing threats, physical attacks and violence, according to the Pew Research Center. A third of Asian Americans say theyhave changed their daily behavior to keep themselves safe.

“That could have been me and my family involved in the attacks,” said Jake Leaf, a 15-year-old biracial Chinese American from Orlando, who rallied with his kung fu teacher Mimi Chan for a proposed bill in Florida. “I wanted to help as much as I could to prevent something like that from happening in the future.”

To head off future attacks, activists want Americans to learn aboutturning points in AAPI history, such as how Chinese migrants built the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, what led to the Japanese internment in the 1940s, how Hmong refugees fled war torn Laos in 1975, and how discrimination and violence against the Sikh community followed 9/11.

At the helm of this movement is longtime activist and lawyer Stewart Kwoh, leading the charge with his wife, Patricia, and their nonprofit Asian American Education Project. Alongside other teachers, they have created 53 lesson plans on subjects including racism and immigration, training more than 1,000 educators over the past year online. Kwoh had worked as an attorney in 1983 helping to prosecute the killers of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was murdered in Detroit by two autoworkers who blamed Japan for the downturn in the city.

“Asian Americans were invisible,” said Kwoh, 73, who headed Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, which grew into the largest civil rights group for Asian Americans. “You don’t understand American history thoroughly unless you understand Asian American history, like where birthright citizenship came from.”

Asian Americans, once less likely to be involved in politics than other racial groups, have become more assertive in campaigns and at the ballot box. Turnout among this bloc jumped from 48 percent in 2016 to 62 percent in 2020, the largest hike in any racial group, according to The Washington Post analysis of the census turnout survey. Next month, activists will hold the first Asian American-led march on the National Mall featuring more than 50 different groups. They’ll be asking for multicultural studies in K-12 and higher educational systems, as well as racial justice.

“Parents kind of instill this value in you that you just need to follow the rules and keep your head down and then you’ll achieve success,” said 16-year-old Melinda Lu, who testified for the Connecticut bill. “But having this anti-Asian hate … we want people to be aware that we’re not just people that can be brushed aside, and we’re people that are very committed to helping this nation develop and making sure that everybody around the world and everybody within our community is able to learn more about our culture, and also accept us.”

Lu volunteers for the nonprofit Make Us Visible, which rallies communities across the nation to push for schools to require AAPI history. They were successful in her state of Connecticut, which just passed legislation. When it is enacted, the state will be the first with a funded mandate for Asian American history in K-12 classrooms. It requires local and regional school boards to incorporate AAPI studies into social studies lessons by the 2025-2026 school year and sets aside $100,000 to fund a coordinator with the state department of education to oversee research and alignment of curriculum.

It will be the third state to require AAPI history lessons. Bills in Florida, Ohio, Maryland, and Wisconsin did not pass, and communities there are regrouping to try again. Lawmakers in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are still pushing for bills, while California, Washington and Oregon have mandated ethnic studies.

All of these states have different parameters. For example, Illinois requires “a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian American history,” while Maryland advocated for an “expanded American history,” which includes AAPIs and “other groups as determined by the State Board.” Oregon was the first state to require ethnic studies for K-12 in 2017, whereas California was the first to pass a statewide ethnic studies high school curriculum, which took three years and is nearly 900 pages on the stories of “historically marginalized peoples which are often untold in U.S. history courses.”

“The [attack] numbers skyrocketed after leaders like the former president used words like ‘Kung Flu’ and ‘Chinese virus,’” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who is working to have the United States designate Lunar New Year as a federal holiday and build an Asian American Pacific Islander museum on the National Mall. “But discrimination against Asians existed way before that and is very much embedded in the history of our country.”

Meng helped pass the Hate Crimes Act last year, which obligates the Justice Department to review and expedite hate crime reports related to the pandemic, issue guidance in establishing an online hate-crime reporting process, and work with the Department of Health and Human Services to raise awareness about such hate crimes.

Nonprofits like the Southern Law Poverty Center and Facing History point to several local studies showing that education improved student tolerance. In their study with Harvard University of 60 high schools across eight cities, for instance, students relayed “greater self-reported civic efficacy and tolerance for others with different views” after a five-day seminar and and follow-up coaching about “the failure of democracy in pre-World War II Germany and, specifically, the steps leading up to the Holocaust.”

“Education is the tool for creating a more humane and compassionate society,” said Abby Weiss of Facing History, a global nonprofit whose mission is to use history lessons to challenge teachers and students to stand up to bigotry and hate.

Yet as activists push for more education, they feel the pressure of another movement, too. More than 100 state-level bills have also been introduced to restrict the teaching of diversity since the beginning of the year, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice. These include measures that bar culturally responsive lessons and critical race theory, a catchall term used on the right to encompass lessons on race and racism.

Advocates say the current teaching about the AAPI community is radically insufficient. Eighteen states included zero content on Asians in their K-12 history curriculum standards, according to a national survey released in January by Sohyun An, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

“The White man who killed Asian immigrants was a Georgia product. If he had learned about Asian American history in relation to our humanity, I don’t think that he can go travel to three different locations and kill the Asian women as if they are not even human,” said the Korean American professor, who lives 15 minutes away from the site of the Atlanta shooting and has been told to “Go back to China!” inside a grocery store and to “Stay home! You sickly people!” in a shopping mall parking lot.

When textbooks did include some AAPI history, An found it was mainly about the Japanese American internment or the Chinese Exclusion Act. But according to the Pew Research Center, the nation’s 22 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries.

“There are so many different faiths, there’s so many sovereign nations, there’s so many different traditions that exist,” said Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, who just opened a Sikh art gallery in Norwich, Conn., and served on the city’s education board.