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Spin Control: Why a bill to designate Chinese American history month hit a brick wall this session

Of the roughly 1,000 bills introduced in the late, great 2021 session, most of the conversation and conflict right now centers on those that survived the gauntlet of multiple hearings and votes to reach the governor’s desk.

One that initially seemed like a shoo-in but was eventually shut out is creating a bit of controversy, however. It would have declared January as Chinese American History Month and encouraged public schools to provide information and activities on the lives, contributions, history and achievements of Chinese Americans.

Senate Bill 5264 sailed through the Senate State Government Committee with bipartisan sponsorship, a late January hearing where never was heard a discouraging word and a unanimous vote sending it to the powerful Rules Committee that schedules votes on the Senate floor. It stalled there, as did many bills in the session.

There was a brief attempt in mid-April to maneuver it around the rules for when a bill must meet certain deadlines. But that, too, foundered, and the proposal now resides in the limbo between sessions. Like hundreds of other ideas great and small, it’s not really dead but is consigned to start all over again in 2022, when the session will be even shorter.

Some members of the Chinese American community feel betrayed by Democrats, arguing a party that touts its support of minority communities and runs things in the Legislature could easily have found time to get a quick floor vote in the Senate and a path through the House.

After all, they noted, the Legislature found time to pass a bill that made Juneteenth – the day that Blacks in Texas were told slavery had ended and they were free – a state holiday, but could not find time declare Chinese American history month. The former will cost the state money while the latter is a freebie, they point out.

Democratic leaders who were asked about those complaints in their post-session press conference insisted the bill was a victim of timing and work load, adding that schools will be taking steps to make all students feel included.

“We’ll come back in 2022 to this issue and so many others that were left undone,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, said.

Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle, pushed back against the idea that the two bills had any connection, adding that while he supports more diversity in the curriculum, more discussions with minority communities overall were warranted.

“This was not Juneteenth versus Chinese American history month,” he said. “There’s been a history of anti-Blackness in the Asian community and we do not want to perpetuate that narrative by any means.”

The history month proposal wasn’t brand new. A similar bill was introduced in 2020. That one didn’t even get a hearing, although a resolution honoring the historic contributions of Chinese Americans did pass.

The bill and the subsequent back and forth generate questions for both sides. First, does the state need to designate a month for the history of one particular ethnic group? If it does, Chinese Americans, while not the largest minority group or even the largest Asian minority, might deserve recognition, considering the state has been the home to several prominent Chinese Americans, including Gary Locke, who was the nation’s first Chinese American governor.

But the state already recognizes Black history month in February, Filipino American history month in October and Native American heritage month in November. It also has an Asian Pacific American heritage month in May, which would include Chinese Americans.

At a certain point, there are only so many months to set aside – a dozen tops, and really only nine if you’re talking about having schools dedicate time to the effort.

All of those designations coincided with national efforts. The heritage month proposal seems to be a state effort and is backed principally by Washington Asians for Equality. That group, political observers with good memories might recall, spearheaded the successful effort to recall Initiative 1000, the affirmative action measure that Democrats pushed through the Legislature two years ago. Leaders of that group, Linda Yang and Kan Qui, were among the sponsors who spoke at the committee hearing.

One other problem could be that supporters didn’t do a good enough job building up backing for the bill. For example, the governor’s Commission on Asian Pacific Affairs wasn’t contacted about the bill, nor was the governor’s office, Tara Lee, the governor’s executive director of communications, said last Friday in an email.

Because the proposal doesn’t require the state to spend any money, and only encourages but doesn’t mandate that schools participate, it could be handled with a gubernatorial proclamation, Rep. My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue, told the Northwest Asian Weekly.

So far, however, no one has approached Gov. Jay Inslee’s office with such a request, Lee said.

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