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Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Rhode Island would be the third state in the U.S. to mandate AAPI history in schools. Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A Rhode Island Republican is leading the call for mandated AAPI history in the state’s schools

Should Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung’s bill pass, Rhode Island would be the third state in the U.S. to mandate AAPI history after Illinois and New Jersey.

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As Republicans across the country move to control how race-related topics are taught in public schools, one lawmaker in Rhode Island is following through with her pledge to introduce legislation requiring public schools to study Asian-American history. 

Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung — a Cranston Republican and spouse of former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung — wants students in the ocean state to learn about Asian-American achievements and about anti-Asian measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act

“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,” Fenton-Fung told the Boston Globe

Fenton-Fung first mentioned her proposal during a 2021 debate over a bill requiring that African-American history be taught in Rhode Island schools, legislation which she supported. 

Fellow Republican Rep. Patricia L. Morgan attempted to change the bill to require education about Italian and Irish-Americans, and those with roots in more than two dozen other nations. 

At the time, Fenton-Fung agreed that students should be able to celebrate and learn about multiple cultures, but that it can be done one at a time. 

She then said she would likely submit a bill on Asian-American history so that students understand that “at one point in our history Rhode Island participated in the Chinese Exclusion Act.” 

On Wednesday, Feb. 2, Fenton-Fung introduced a bill that was originally scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee on Feb. 16. She requested the hearing to be moved to March as many Asian-Americans are celebrating the Lunar New Year

The bill would require that the state’s public elementary and high schools include “Asian-American history, including the history of Asian-Americans in Rhode Island and the Northeast,” in its curriculum. 

Students would learn about contributions made by Asian-Americans in several sectors of society, including humanities, sciences, the arts, and government, and their contributions 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.

Fenton-Fung said that the stories of Asian-Americans have historically been neglected. 

“If you talk to people, they want their history to be part of the great American story,” she told the Boston Globe

She also referenced a recent survey that found that 42% of American adults couldn’t name a single Asian-American. The most common answer was Jackie Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, not the states. 

Fenton-Fung also noted that many Americans don’t know that a California court once ruled that a Chinese witness could not testify against a white man accused of murder. 

While anti-Asian sentiments are not new, the nation has seen a steady and alarming increase in anti-Asian harassment and assaults. STOP AAPI Hate, a national coalition that gathers reporting on pandemic-related hate crimes, received 9,081 incident reports between March 2020 and June 2021.

If the bill becomes law, Rhode Island would become the third state to make Asian-American history a requirement in public school curriculums, following Illinois and New Jersey.

“Education creates cultural understanding that can help to break through stereotypes,” Fenton-Fung said.

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