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Why hate crimes against Arab Americans have long been difficult to track

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The families of three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot over the weekend in Vermont are calling it a crime fueled by hate. But so far, police in Burlington say they don't have information to suggest what the motive for the attack was. Still, the shooting surfaces long-standing and unique issues in tracking possible hate crimes committed against Arab Americans. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins us to discuss this. Good morning.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Odette, the Burlington police chief says the victims were speaking a mix of Arabic and English, and two of them were wearing Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves when they were shot. But that doesn't suggest anything about the motive, the chief said. Can you explain that a bit?

YOUSEF: Well, police are saying they don't have, quote, "statements or remarks" by the suspect. And to be clear, it would not be a crime on its own, you know, for someone to accost others with derogatory or hateful speech. But when a crime is committed, that kind of speech can be really important evidence to make the case that it's a hate crime. And you'll be surprised, Leila, at how this can affect the way that crimes end up being categorized. You know, one notable example, the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando - this was a gay nightclub.

FADEL: Right.

YOUSEF: This shooting left 49 people dead. And many believe that the selection of that venue made it obvious that the perpetrator was motivated out of hate toward the LGBT community. But the FBI did not count that as a hate crime because the investigation simply didn't provide the evidence that law enforcement needed to show that the crime was tied to a hatred of gay people.

FADEL: What about Arab Americans in particular? What does the data show about hate crimes affecting them?

YOUSEF: So the Arab American story is unique. And for this you need a little context. So the FBI started releasing nationwide data on hate crimes in 1992. And what's interesting is that when the database was being developed, there was a category to keep track of anti-Arab hate crimes. This was known as Bias Code 31. But prior to the release of that first nationwide report, that code was removed.

FADEL: Oh.

YOUSEF: And the FBI numbers didn't report anti-Arab hate crimes at all, really, until 2015, when Bias Code 31 was finally reintroduced. Here's Maya Berry. She's with the Arab American Institute.

MAYA BERRY: You still had some states that continued to collect that data on anti-Arab, but it was simply recoded as other ethnicity. So we were literally rendered invisible in the hate crime data for decades.

YOUSEF: And as you could imagine, Leila, this has meant that at moments when we know that anti-Arab sentiment is high, such as, you know, the period following 9/11...

FADEL: Yeah.

YOUSEF: ...There hasn't been any real tracking of those numbers.

FADEL: But why? Why was that code removed and these crimes not tracked for all those years?

YOUSEF: I reached out to the FBI, and I haven't heard back. And it's worth noting that FBI hate crime numbers are widely believed to be a significant undercount. But still, Berry argues that the omission of this category has had real implications, namely that local law enforcement haven't been trained to identify hate crimes against Arab Americans. And this can compound other issues, like the mistrust between Arab American communities and police that came out of post-9/11 surveillance programs.

FADEL: NPR's domestic extremism correspondent, Odette Yousef. Thanks, Odette.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
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