Over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the US, Asian Americans are still facing discrimination and attacks driven by hate and fear sparked by the pandemic. From former US president Donald Trump calling the disease “the Chinese virus” to misinformation spread online, fearful citizens were ready to pick a target for their misguided anger. The campaign to blame Chinese people for the virus was fueled by a long history of stereotyping, othering, and ignorance. 

Now, a groundbreaking Illinois law is taking on the challenge of using education to help reduce harm and discimination caused by misinformation.

On Friday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed historic legislation into law that will require the teaching of Asian American history in public schools — making Illinois the first state in the US to require Asian American history to be included in public school curriculums.  

The Teaching Equitable Asian American History (TEAACH) Act will take effect for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year. The law comes at a time when major cities in the US that have been hotspots for attacks against Asian Americans are grappling to find ways to ensure the safety of their Asian American population

The legislation aims to combat false stereotypes through educating and properly representing the Asian American experience. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have become the target of hate crimes at an increasing rate. Asian Americans experienced an overall 149% increase in hate crimes in 2020. 

“We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history. 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 on the decisive legislation. 

The law ensures that public elementary schools and high schools in Illinois will teach students about the rich cultures of Asian Americans and their important contributions throughout history. 

"This milestone offers students of all backgrounds cross-cultural education, and ensures that the stories and experiences of our communities are accurately reflected in the classroom,” State Sen. Ram Villivalamsaid 

In May, US President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law, affirming the commitment to addressing the rise in hate-motivated attacks against the Asian American community. After the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in China, due to stereotyping, the blame was soon placed upon all Asian Americans regardless of ethnicity. 

Asian Americans experienced physical harm due to stereotyping and xenophobia while also reporting financial losses. Early in the pandemic, businesses owned by Asian Americans experienced a 60% drop in sales while non-Asian American-owned businesses reported a 50% decrease. 

The TEAACH act hopes to provide a curriculum that better reflects the diversity of Illinois' population — where about 5% of the 12.5 million population is Asian American. Asian Americans have the fastest-growing population of all racial and ethnic groups in the US, with the Pew Research Center recording an 81% increase in the Asian American population from the years 2000 to 2019.

Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition formed in response to the growing number of racially motivated incidents, ranked Illinois seventh on a list of top states where hate crimes occurred against Asian Americans.

Racially motivated attacks such as a mass shooting in Georgia that occurred on March 16, which claimed the lives of eight people including six Asian Americans, have left Americans questioning what can be done to prevent these hate crimes from occurring. 

While COVID-19 death rates decrease in the US and targeted crimes against Asian Americans continue to occur, enacting required education to combat harmful stereotypes and racism was acknowledged by lawmakers and advocates as a step in the right direction. 

"Empathy comes from understanding," State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz said. "We cannot do better unless we know better. A lack of knowledge is the root cause of discrimination and the best weapon against ignorance is education."

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This US State Is the First to Require Schools Teach Asian American History. Here's Why That Matters.

By Kate Nakamura