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Pritzker signs law making Illinois ‘first state in the nation’ to require public schools to teach Asian American history

The new law will require Illinois’ public elementary and high schools to teach students about Asian American history starting in 2022. “It’s a new standard that helps us understand one another, and ultimately to move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals,” Pritzker said.

State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz and state Sen. Ram Villivalam watch Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign legislation Friday that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history.
State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz and state Sen. Ram Villivalam watch Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign legislation Friday that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Asian American history will soon be woven into public school studies across Illinois under a bill signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday, a move the governor said sets a “new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history.”

“Today we are reaffirming our commitment to creating more inclusive school environments. We’re making Illinois the first state in the nation ... to require that Asian American history will be taught in public schools,” Pritzker said at Niles West High School.

“It’s a new standard that helps us understand one another, and ultimately to move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals.”

The new law will require Illinois’ public elementary and high schools to teach students about Asian American history starting in 2022 after a spike in violence against Asian Americans and the killing of six Asian American women in Atlanta in March.

The lessons include the history of the Chinese Exclusion Acts; the internment of Japanese Americans; the military service of Asian Americans throughout American history; the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest; and Asian American contributions toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward.

In April, state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz said on the floor of the House that she introduced the bill because Asian Americans “are part of the American fabric, but we are often invisible.”

“We have been the victims of racialized violence and exclusion throughout American history,” she said then, adding her grandparents faced “discrimination and deportation under racist policies codified in the Chinese Exclusion acts” but she was taught nothing about that in elementary or secondary school.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, holds the legislation at a ceremony attended by state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, left, and state Sen. Ram Villivalam, right.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, holds up legislation that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history. State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, left, and state Sen. Ram Villivalam, right, attended the bill-signing ceremony on Friday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

At the bill signing Friday, the Glenview Democrat said learning about her family’s history, and the larger history of Asian Americans in the U.S., was a “pivotal moment” in her life.

The new law will ensure “the next generation of Asian American students won’t need to travel across the country or attend law school to learn something about their heritage.”

State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz speaks to reporters before Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs legislation that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history on Friday.
State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz speaks to reporters before Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs legislation that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history on Friday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“Empathy comes from understanding, and we cannot do better unless we know better,” Gong-Gershowitz said. “But when Asian American history isn’t taught, it leaves a gap that can lead non-Asian people to believe in stereotypes and act towards Asian Americans based on those stereotypes. A lack of knowledge is the root cause of discrimination and the best weapon against ignorance is education.”