PROVIDENCE — As Republicans nationwide are moving to limit what race-related ideas can be taught in public schools, one GOP lawmaker in Rhode Island is following through on a promise to introduce legislation requiring public school children to study Asian-American history.
Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, said she wants students to learn about Asian-American achievements and about anti-Asian measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 federal law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers.
“It’s so people understand the horrible things that happened in history and don’t repeat them, but it’s also to understand the achievements of Asian-Americans such as Yo-Yo Ma, Kamala Harris, and Lucy Liu,” she told the Globe.
Fenton-Fung first mentioned her proposal last year during a debate about a bill requiring that African-American history be taught in Rhode Island schools. She supported that legislation.
But a fellow Republican, Representative Patricia L. Morgan, tried to amend the African-American history bill to require education about Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and those with roots in more than two dozen other countries.
At the time, Fenton-Fung said, “It’s OK to celebrate one heritage, it’s OK to educate about one, and then work on other bills to make sure their stories are told and celebrated so future generations are even better than we are.” She said she would likely submit a bill on Asian-American history “so that the kids know that at one point in our history Rhode Island participated in the Chinese Exclusion Act.”
Now, Fenton-Fung has followed through, introducing a bill that had been scheduled to be heard on Wednesday before the House Education Committee. She asked to move the hearing to March because many Asian-Americans are celebrating the Lunar New Year.
The legislation would require that the state’s public elementary and high schools “include in its curriculum a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian-American history, including the history of Asian-Americans in Rhode Island and the Northeast.”
Students would learn about contributions made by Asian-Americans in government, the arts, humanities, and sciences, plus the contributions of Asian-American communities to the nation’s economic, cultural, and political development.
“The studying of this material shall constitute an affirmation by students of their commitment to respect the dignity of all races and peoples and to forever eschew every form of discrimination in their lives and careers,” the bill states.
Morgan – a West Warwick Republican who made national headlines in December for tweeting that she lost “a Black friend” to critical race theory – said on Wednesday that she would support Fenton-Fung’s bill.
But she said she hopes the House will instead pass a bill that she plans to introduce to require teaching about “the history of all nationalities and ethnicities that have come to Rhode Island and America.”
“I think their history is important,” Morgan said of Asian-Americans, noting that many Chinese-Americans fled the Cultural Revolution and that Rhode Island has a significant Hmong community.
“They have an important story that we should support and understand, and I think teaching the heritage and histories of every nationality is just as important,” she said. “There is so much for our students to learn and to appreciate what a wonderful country we live in – a beacon for liberty and prosperity.”
Fenton-Fung said Asian-Americans are “a group of people whose story has historically not been told.” She said, “If you talk to people, they want their history to be part of the great American story.”
She noted that a recent survey found that 42 percent of American adults couldn’t name a single Asian-American. The most common answer was Jackie Chan (11 percent) and Bruce Lee (9 percent). She said many people don’t realize that Vice President Harris, for example, is the first person of South Asian descent to hold that office.
Also, many Americans don’t realize that a California court once ruled that a Chinese witness could not testify against a white man accused of murder, Fenton-Fung said. And she noted that thousands of Japanese-Americans were forced into detention camps during World War II.
In recent years, the nation has seen an increase in anti-Asian incidents, Fenton-Fung said. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that became the authority on gathering data on racially motivated attacks related to the pandemic, received 9,081 incident reports between March 2020 and June 2021.
Meanwhile, stereotypical views of Asian-Americans create a barrier – sometimes called the “bamboo ceiling” – that can limit advancement in corporate America and other realms, she said.
“Education creates cultural understanding that can help to break through stereotypes,” Fenton-Fung said.