Asian Americans in CT fight discrimination, move beyond 'model minority myth'

Since the beginning of this century, the number of Asian Americans living in Connecticut has more than doubled — the fastest growth rate for any racial or ethnic minority group in the state. 

Now comprising more than 180,000 residents, or about 5 percent of Connecticut’s population, Asian Americans are vital contributors to the state’s economy across a range of industries. 

But few Asian Americans reach the top positions in large organizations in the corporate or nonprofit sectors. For many, discrimination persists as a barrier to career advancement — belying the prevalent perception that they constitute a “model minority” group that is more successful and more accepted than other minority communities. 

Asian Americans are not accepting the status quo. In response to a nationwide wave of hate incidents since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been speaking out and taking action. The advocacy in Connecticut has catalyzed a number of significant initiatives, which include the launch of a state council focused on hate crimes, workplace-focused litigation and a mandate for public schools to teach Asian American history. 

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Discrimination against Asian Americans is longstanding and widespread. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of hate incidents have been reported nationwide. 

•    During the first two years of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center (March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2022), individuals across the country reported 11,467 incidents

•    67% of incidents involved harassment, such as verbal or written hate speech or inappropriate gestures

•    40% of incidents took place in public spaces, such as a street, sidewalk, road, park, hiking trail or beach

•    27% of incidents took place in businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies or "big box" retail

•    17% of incidents involved physical violence 

•    10% of incidents occurred online

•    9% of incidents occurred on public transit

•    In a 2021 study, 31.5% of Asian Americans reported experiencing a hate incident in the workplace, while 23.5% said they felt reluctant to go back to in-person work because of potential anti-Asian hate

Source: Stop AAPI Hate; Edelman Data & Intelligence

(Stop AAPI Hate reports on hate incidents - "actions driven by bias against another person's race, color, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity," the organization said in its latest national report. "A small but meaningful percentage of hate incidents are hate crimes - bias-motivated criminal offenses. The majority of hate incidents are non-criminal behaviors that contribute to an unwelcoming environment, such as spitting or the use of racial slurs.") 


“Asians as the ‘model minority,’ with no voice, and, ‘we’ll do what we’re told’ — millions of folks grew up that way. I grew up that way,” Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system, said in an interview. “Only now can we really change that.” 

‘I hope to serve as a role model’

Nationwide, there are approximately 20 million Asian Americans, or about 6 percent of the total population — and their economic impact is evident across the country. 

In 2019, there were about 581,200 Asian-owned businesses, comprising about 10 percent of the total, according to an estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.  

At the same time, large organizations’ recruitment has contributed to the growing number of Asian Americans in Connecticut.  

“Asian American migration to the state has been part of every industry — from the aerospace industry, to insurance and accounting firms, to the incredible medical research facilities,” Jason Chang, associate professor of history and Asian American Studies and director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, said in an interview. “With the arc of economic transformation in the state, Asian American migration has followed it and helped it to be successful.”

Cheng exemplifies Asian Americans’ growing prominence in the state. In May 2021, he was named president of Connecticut State Colleges & Universities — becoming the first Asian American to lead a public university or public-university system in Connecticut. 

At CSCU, Cheng leads an organization that oversees 12 community colleges, four state universities and Charter Oak State College, and serves more than 72,000 students. He previously served as the director of UConn’s Stamford campus for 15 years. 

Cheng speaks proudly about being a first-generation American. He was born in Taiwan in 1972; the following year, he immigrated with his family to the U.S. 

“I consciously, cognizantly, carry with me the legacies of my own family, but also for all the first-generation and immigrant students that populate not only the great state of Connecticut, but so much of our nation,” Cheng said at a press event announcing his appointment as CSCU president

Among milestones in other organizations, Dr. Bruce Liang started in February as the interim chief executive officer of the UConn Health system. He is the first Asian American to lead the organization, which encompasses patient services, UConn’s schools of medicine and dental medicine, and a number of research programs.  

Liang has worked at UConn Health since 2002, after previously working at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. In addition to serving as interim CEO, he has served since 2015 as the dean of the UConn School of Medicine.  

Like Cheng, Liang is originally from Taiwan — immigrating to the U.S., with his family, when he was 15 years old, in 1972.   

“I believe that the secret sauce for me over the last 30-40 years has been to work hard and do the right thing. That’s what’s driven me,” Liang said in an interview. “I hope to serve as a role model, and I hope the path that I have taken will be viewed as a potential avenue to serve at a higher level.” 

Few Asian Americans in the top ranks

Despite the rise of leaders such as Cheng and Liang, Asian Americans are still underrepresented in senior-level positions in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. 

While Asians made up 13 percent of the professional workforce, they accounted for only 6 percent of executives, according to a 2020 analysis of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission national workforce data by Ascend Foundation, a nonprofit pan-Asian organization focused on research. (In the analysis, the term “Asians” refers to Asians and Asian Americans, both foreign-born and U.S.-born.) 

“Inequities among diverse populations persist and debunks the model minority myth with data that show the overachievement ethos of a pan-Asian stereotype is not found in the corporate management pipeline,” Anna Mok, president and board chairman of Ascend Foundation and Ascend, a nonprofit pan-Asian membership organization for professionals and students, said in a report on the findings.  

Mok added that, “more needs to be done to address the underlying causes that are limiting advancement for pan Asians, Blacks and Latinx into executive levels, with Asian and Black women continuing to be the least likely of all cohorts to be executives.” 

Other grassroots advocates agree that the obstacles to career advancement faced by Asian Americans highlight the “model minority myth.”  

“This myth is extremely harmful — it downplays the fact that Asian Americans too face systemic racism and discrimination and are subject to race and ethnicity-based hate,” the Stop AAPI Hate coalition said in a written statement. “This myth also harms other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities and has contributed to discriminatory practices by employers who too often leave our communities out of important DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts to advance equitable representation of leadership.” 

Some professionals have sought accountability through the courts. In a lawsuit filed last June in federal court in Connecticut against Darien-based private equity firm Portfolio Advisors and several of its top executives, Darien resident Michelle Lee alleged that she endured discrimination, in large part because she is Asian American, that impeded her career advancement. 

A 2001 graduate of Yale University who then attended Yale Law School, Lee worked at Portfolio Advisors from November 2007 until last June. She most recently held the position of general counsel — investments. She said her employment at the firm was terminated the day after she filed the original version of the lawsuit.

On Dec. 13, Lee and the defendants filed a joint stipulation of dismissal. Asked by Hearst Connecticut Media Group whether the filing indicated that a settlement had been reached, Lee said in an email that, “the matter has been resolved.” She declined to comment further. 

In a recent interview, before the case was resolved, Lee, a married mother of three school-age boys, said, “I decided to share my story because the most important thing for me is change and to bring awareness of the discrimination that Asian Americans face in the workplace. If my generation doesn’t start speaking up, nothing is going to change.”

Messages left for Portfolio Advisors and an attorney who represented the firm in the case were not returned. In September, Portfolio Advisors filed a motion to strike and motion to dismiss portions of the lawsuit. 

As for Cheng and Liang, they said that advancing DEI initiatives, to support Asian American employees and colleagues from other underrepresented groups, ranks among their top objectives. Asian Americans, respectively, account for 4 percent of CSCU’s approximately 12,600 employees and 9 percent of the approximately 3,500 who work at UConn Health. 

“We all want to see more representation from different groups because we believe in diversity as a strength and unifier — rather than something that is going to stratify and divide us, according to perceived differences,” Cheng said. 

Liang said, “when I speak to diversity, equity and inclusion, there is a sense of community at UConn Health — of wanting to learn one another’s background, philosophy and culture. That, to me, is very refreshing.”   

‘Tip of the iceberg’

The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed a new wave of bigotry and xenophobia, with Asian Americans enduring vitriol blaming them for the spread of the virus from China.

Highlighting the hostilities, there were 279 anti-Asian incidents reported in 2020, a 77 percent increase since 2019, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hate Crime Statistics.  

Violent crimes perpetrated in the past three years have included a white gunman’s rampage in March 2021 at three Atlanta-area massage parlors that killed six women of Asian descent and two other people.  

Most hate incidents, however, involve non-criminal, but still hostile, behavior such as spitting or the use of racial slurs, according to Stop AAPI Hate. During the first two years of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, from March 2020 to March 2022, individuals across the country reported 11,467 incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate’s latest national report

In the report, Stop AAPI Hate officials described that number as “just the tip of the iceberg.” They also noted that a “nationally representative survey” conducted in partnership with Edelman Data & Intelligence found that one in five Asian Americans and one in five Pacific Islanders experienced a hate incident in 2020 or 2021. In addition, the study found that 31.5 percent of Asian Americans reported experiencing a hate incident in the workplace.

“Even as workers have started to return to office post-COVID, more than one out of five Asian American respondents felt reluctant to go back to in-person work because of potential anti-Asian hate,” Stop AAPI Hate, which was launched in March 2020 by AAPI Equity Alliance, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University, said in the statement provided to Hearst. “The fear of returning to work was even higher among low-wage workers, which shows the extent to which socioeconomic status impacts different people’s experience (with) anti-Asian hate.” 

Taking action

In Connecticut, it is more difficult to quantify the extent of workplace mistreatment of Asian Americans. The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities maintains annual data for complaints based on broadly defined factors such as  “race,” “national origin,” and “color.” But it does not track the number of complaints, respectively, filed by Asian Americans or people who belong to other racial or ethnic minority groups. 

It is indisputable, however, that Asian Americans in Connecticut face discrimination at work and in many other settings, according to a number of elected officials.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, the first Asian American elected to a statewide position in Connecticut, said in an interview that while his parents’ support and hard work helped him to succeed professionally, “so many people like me experience this hate and discrimination, and it goes not just unanswered, but unacknowledged, and people suffer at work or in school.” 

In one of the most-significant initiatives in the state to tackle hate crimes and other hostile acts perpetrated against Asian Americans and other minority groups, the Connecticut Hate Crimes Advisory Council was launched last year

“The majority of victims (of hate crimes) are people of color. In recent years, members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community have been frequent targets. Experts in law enforcement and academia agree that this trend is likely to continue and perhaps accelerate nationwide and in Connecticut,” the council said in its 2022 annual report. “Anticipating and preventing a potential upsurge in crimes is of critical important to the well-being of our state.” 

Among 62 reported hate crimes involving bias based on race, ethnicity or ancestry in Connecticut in 2020, only one involved anti-Asian bias, according to a report by the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection

An attack against an Asian American or a member of another minority group is not necessarily a hate crime — but it is also possible that some hate crimes are not reported. As part of its mission, the council aims to strengthen the state’s reporting systems.  

“In our aspirations for decreasing the prevalence of both hate crimes and hate incidents, we need to communicate and make sure that there is accountability,” said UConn’s Chang, who is a member of the council. “Part of that is increasing the comfort and reliability of reporting, so when things do happen, they do get reported. The system of accountability can’t go into effect if things aren’t reported.” 

Among other initiatives that aim to tackle discrimination, the state General Assembly passed legislation this year requiring Asian American and Pacific Islander studies to be included in Connecticut public schools’ secondary-level social studies curricula. Connecticut is one of the first states to mandate that school districts offer AAPI studies, a requirement that will be enacted in the fall of 2025. 

“To have this type of requirement is going to allow generations of students to learn about different people, potentially different from them, and to humanize them,” Cheng said. “That becomes part of how you think and see the world. And that affects how you behave. That hopefully yields the result of a more understanding and equitable landscape for our folks as they move forward.”; twitter: @paulschott