HomeCampusHonoring Lau v. Nichols, a civil rights victory in education

Honoring Lau v. Nichols, a civil rights victory in education

By Matthew Yoshimoto, AsAmNews Intern

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols, a landmark court case that served as a major civil rights victory in bilingual education and language access. 

The 1974 Supreme Court case expanded rights for students with limited English proficiency by arguing that English-only instruction to Chinese-speaking students violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This provision prohibited discrimination on the grounds of “race, color, or national origin,” according to Dr. Xigrid Soto-Boykin, Director of Language Justice and Learning Equity at the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University. 

“Lau v. Nichols set an important precedent to ensure we protect the civil rights of children who are emergent bilinguals in public schools,” said Soto-Boykin to AsAmNews. “Today, we can continue to build on the legacy of Lau v. Nichols … to not only leverage their academic success, but to foster their positive self-identities, self-esteem, and family and cultural connections.”

Soto-Boykin explained the importance of commemorating Lau v. Nichols as well as the Chinese American community that headed this case. She explained this ruling was pivotal in ensuring all children receive a “fair and adequate” education since it established the right to receive language support as a civil rights issue. 

Alice Cheng, Education Equity Community Advocate at Chinese for Affirmative Action, said there will be a conference at UC Law San Francisco on May 4 to bring together students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders to reflect on this landmark case. They hope to co-create a “vision for what language and racial justice in education looks like in San Francisco.”

Cheng noted this was a major civil rights victory that highlighted cross racial collaboration between progressive Black, Latino, and Asian American communities. She stresses the importance of cross racial organizing in advancing education equity.

Cheng hopes communities understand that language rights is a racial justice issue and encourages classrooms to teach the history of bilingual education, especially regarding Asian Americans. 

“Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols is not just about celebrating this milestone for English Learners, but it’s also about looking at how far we have to go in terms of making sure students have language rights. There are still so many systemic issues that negatively impact English Learners. In commemorating the 50th anniversary, we can look back at decades of community organizing for immigrant students to have self-determination and autonomy through their language rights,” said Cheng to AsAmNews. 

Although the court case made major strives in advancing bilingual education, Cheng said the issue of language rights persists in the present day, noting that 30% of students in the San Francisco Unified School District are emergent bilinguals and continue to face systemic issues in education. 

Similarly, Soto-Boykin said the rights of emergent bilinguals “continue to be at peril” as only 8% of emergent bilinguals in K-12 receive dual language education and the majority of students only receive instruction in English. 

She explained dual language education, in which children receive their instruction in both English and a partner language like Mandarin, has proven to be the most effective in uplifting the academic success of an emergent bilingual. 

While California and Massachusetts repealed their English-only laws in 2016 and 2017, respectively, Arizona continues to uphold a law that only focuses on English and ignores dual language education.

“We must continue to advocate for children who are emergent bilinguals to have the right to a dual language education, as this is the model that aligns with what research supports is the most sustainable and effective approach to their bilingual language acquisition,” said Soto-Boykin to AsAmNews. 

Martha Hernandez, the executive director of Californians Together, added there are 1.1 million English learners in California alone and explained the 50th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols acts as a reminder that the fight for language justice is a shared and ongoing struggle.

While noting this was a “significant victory for students across the country, no matter their home language,” Hernandez notes ongoing challenges including a shortage of bilingual teachers, inadequate English-only assessments and a lack of linguistically and  culturally relevant instructional materials.

“People often think of English learners as a monolith, but Lau is a reminder to celebrate the wonderful diversity within the multilingual education community, including students and teachers. Diversity is our strength and we are stronger together,” said Hernandez to AsAmNews. “Recent years have seen an uptick in xenophobia and anti-immigrant action at the federal level. It’s important to continue celebrating milestones in history that helped get the multilingual education movement to where it is today and also be mindful that the work for a true multilingual California continues.”

Here is a 90 second video recap of the Lau v Nichols case.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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