DeSantis criticized for mandating Asian American history while banning courses on 'systemic racism'


A new law in Florida mandates the teaching of Asian American and Pacific Islander history in public schools. But many Asian Americans are not celebrating, pointing to how other marginalized communities are being affected by the state heavily limiting the instruction of systemic racism and gender identity in the classroom.

Asian American academics and civil rights organizations are speaking out after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill last week, requiring that Asian American and Pacific Islander history to be included in the K-12 curriculum. The measure coincides with another bill signed into law on Monday to no longer permit public colleges to spend money on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. It also limits the way race and gender will be taught in the state’s higher education institutions.

Gregg Orton, national director of National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a coalition of 38 AAPI organizations, said the history law is far from a “win” for the Asian American community, adding that “racial justice can’t be a zero-sum game for communities of color.”

“When you advance a bill that uplifts AAPI communities, but don’t want to acknowledge the fact that in the same state, there are real intentional efforts to invisiblize or erase Black history, or [critical race theory], you are on the wrong side of history,” Orton said. “With Florida, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than they are actively trying to use the Asian American Pacific Islander community as a wedge here.”

Neither DeSantis nor Mimi Chan, president of the Florida chapter of Make Us Visible, the group that spearheaded the push for the legislation, responded to NBC News request for comment. But Chan told WKMG-TV she hopes other states follow suit in implementing similar legislation.

“I think it’s so positive for so many people, not just here in Florida, but across the nation, to see and be inspired that AAPI history will be taught and other states should definitely and hopefully will follow,” Chan said.

The history mandate would require the teaching of Japanese American incarceration in World War II, immigration, citizenship and the “contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to American society.” Conversely, the anti-Diversity, Equity and Inclusion bill, effective July 1, will ban the teaching of courses that legislators say “distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics.” It also bans “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” The bills come after state officials rejected an Advanced Placement African American studies course in January, leading the College Board to water down its framework for the curriculum.

Pawan Dhingra, president of the Association for Asian American Studies, said that the effort from activists to implement Asian American studies in schools is admirable. However, the greater context around race education in the state can’t be ignored, he said. The language in the higher education bill, particularly its use of “identity politics,” Dhingra said, in part dismisses many groups’ real experiences and meaningful critiques.

“What they’re saying is basically denying that there’s just real injustice going on,” he said.

Moreover, Asian American history is intertwined and inextricably tied to others’ experiences, challenges and struggles, Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said. Omitting those aspects of education would create an untruthful representation, he said.

“Asian American history has been shaped and structured by how other groups have been treated,” Jeung said.

Manjusha P. Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, similarly noted that Asian American experiences cannot be separated from that of Black, Indigenous and other groups, calling into question what “version” of history will be taught in schools.

Kulkarni said: “We cannot address racism and hate in a silo. We know that our communities are interconnected.”

She added that the history mandate also coincides with DeSantis’ signing of SB264, a law that in part prohibits Chinese nationals who do not have U.S. citizenship from buying property or land in the state.

“DeSantis and the Florida officials are not truly interested in seeing our full humanity. And that raises further questions about what the bill signing of AAPI history means,” she said.

There’s far more work to be done before Asian Americans and other groups see a meaningful advancement in the race-related curriculum.

“A real win would be if they introduced Asian American curriculum alongside a critical understanding or deepened understanding about the role of race and racism in our society, and help students explore that issue and develop racial empathy,” Jeung said. “They could rescind these anti-CRT bills. They would recognize the role of race. They would recognize that we need to address disparities and inequities in our society.”

For now, the experts say, progress is still distant.

“I don’t want to discount the eagerness and the desire and hunger for our community to see advancements like this,” Orton said of the history mandate. “But it can’t be done at the expense of others.”