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For years, the FBI quietly stopped tracking anti-Arab violence and hate crimes

In a still frame from video law enforcement officers investigate the scene of a shooting late last month in Burlington, Vt. The suspect is accused of shooting three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus.
Wayne Savage
In a still frame from video law enforcement officers investigate the scene of a shooting late last month in Burlington, Vt. The suspect is accused of shooting three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus.

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." 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 issues in tracking possible hate crimes committed against Arab Americans.

And the question of whether this attack will ultimately be prosecuted as a hate crime is set against an unique and complex history when it comes to tracking anti-Arab violence in the U.S.

What happened in Burlington, Vt.

According to police, the men were speaking a mix of Arabic and English and two of them were wearing Palestinian keffiyah scarves when they were accosted on a residential street in Burlington. But the Burlington Police Department says that so far, it does not have any "statements or remarks by the suspect" that might suggest a motive for the attack. The suspect, a 48-year-old man, has pleaded not guiltyto three felony accounts of attempted murder.

Those "statements or remarks" can be important evidence when determining whether or not the case is categorized as a hate crime.

"Although we do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, I do want to be clear that there is no question that this was a hateful act," said Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George during a press conference on Monday.

Nonetheless, the men's families are pushing to have the attack prosecuted as a hate crime. One of the victims, Kinnan Abdelhamid, was released from the hospital on Monday. In a statement, his parents said their son is "still shaken from this horrific attack" and worried about his friends, Hisham Awartani and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, who remain hospitalized.

When it comes to tracking data, the Arab American story is uniquely complicated.

For nearly two decades, anti-Arab violence was omitted from hate crime data.

When the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program developed its hate crime data collection guidelines pursuant to the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it included a category to record anti-Arab incidents. But, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI), the FBI quietly removed that code from the data collection program in 1992. It remained missing until it was reintroduced in the 2015 report.

NPR reached out to the FBI, but did not receive a response.

"The Anti-Arab category is, frankly, a newer one," said Maya Berry, executive director of the AAI. "And it creates a very real challenge in the problem of getting accurate data about us that way."

According to an analysis by the AAI, several states continued to collect data tracking anti-Arab hate crimes under the original UCR code known as "Bias Code 31." But when they submitted it to the federal database, these were converted to a catch-all category for "Anti-Other Ethnicity/National Origin" bias incidents.

"So we were literally rendered invisible in the hate crime data for decades," said Berry.

The omission of the category meant that even during periods when it was known that anti-Arab sentiment was high, such as during the period after the 9/11 attacks, there was no measurement of the scale of the backlash. Berry said it also carried troubling implications for whether law enforcement was sensitized to anti-Arab bias.

"It also impacts the training that local law enforcement is going to receive about how to engage in local communities," she said. "If it's not part of the law enforcement training that they're receiving they may not be able to correctly identify a potential hate crime."

Some argue there is still a severe underreporting of anti-Arab hate crimes.

Bias Code 31 was finally introduced back into the national reports in 2015, following a horrific attack at a Sikh house of worship. In 2012, a white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc., killing six people. The incident prompted several organizations to push for a broadening of bias motivation categories in the UCR system. Along with the anti-Arab Bias Code 31, codes were also added to document anti-Mormon, anti-Jehovah's Witness, anti-Eastern Orthodox, anti-Other Christian, Anti-Buddhist, anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh crimes.

But even with the reintroduction of the anti-Arab hate crime category, many believe there continues to be a severe underreporting of incidents. In 2022, the FBI reported just 91 instances of hate crimes targeting Arabs, and 158 targeting Muslims. Even in comparison to the general underreporting of hate crimes believed to impact numbers across nearly all categories, experts say that this issue is particularly pronounced among Arab- and Muslim-American communities.

"Anti-Muslim hate crimes pose a real difficulty because of an attenuated relationship with law enforcement, with immigration authorities, language barriers among other things," said Brian Levin, former founding director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Levin said that post-9/11 surveillance programs undermined the trust that Arab and Muslim communities otherwise might have built with local and federal law enforcement.

"So I really think when we're looking at this, we have to remember that there are certain communities where underreporting, I believe, is far more rampant than in other communities," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.