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Racialised as white, treated otherwise: How anti-Arab hate becomes invisible in the US Open in fullscreen

Azmi Haroun

Racialised as white, treated otherwise: How anti-Arab hate becomes invisible in the US

One in four hijabi women reported being intentionally pushed on New York City's subway [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 October, 2018

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Comment: The lack of statistics on Arab Americans - classed as 'white' on the Census - is rendering anti-Arab hate crimes invisible, writes Azmi Haroun.
Days after arriving in the US, Tasnim al-Sidnawi was setting up her school locker in El Cajon, California. Accelerated into a foreign public-school system, learning a new language and culture, the 16-year-old Syrian refugee quickly heard from the Americans who wished she had never arrived.

On her way home from school with her sister Huda one day, a car slowed down near the pair. "You're ISIS!" the driver, a white man, shouted. "Why are you wearing a Hijab?"

The pattern of xenophobia has become a fixture in Tasnim's American experience. Tasnim says her father, a barber in his home country, was derided by his manager at the Burger King where he worked as a cook, for being a Syrian refugee.

"It made me so mad," she said. "Because he works hard, but he barely speaks English."

When asked if she has spoken with authorities regarding any of the incidents her family has faced, she was measured.

"My dad told me to call 911 if it happens again, but I don't think they care, and I don't know if they understand why I wear a Hijab," she said.

The powerlessness that many Arab Americans and immigrants feel across the US is compounded by the lack of federal recognition and institutional protections for those communities.

When Tasnim and her family fill out the 2020 Census, their experiences of bigotry are forcefully assimilated. On the form, they are considered white.

'White' is defined by the Census as people 'having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa'

In January, after decades of lobbying by Americans of Arab, Iranian and North African backgrounds for census representation, the US Census Bureau formally rejected the option to include a Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) identifier on the 2020 Census.

The move has caused some tension among Arab American community advocates regarding how to walk the line between exposing hate crimes and protecting their communities from abuses of privacy by the government.

Currently, 61 percent of respondents to the US Census identify as white, which is defined by the Census as people "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa."

A 2016 Inspector General report showed that 95 percent of surveillance
operations still targeted Muslim communities [Getty]

"We don't have accurate statistics on how discrimination affects our community, so we collect the data ourselves, and rely on reports from the New York Commission on Human Rights," said Noha Mahmoud, digital organiser for the Arab American Association of New York.

A 2017 NYCHR report showed that one in four hijabi women reported being intentionally pushed on the subway.

"[Without census recognition] we don't even have an official number for the Arab American population." Mahmoud said.

The Census Bureau counts an official tally of 1.8 million Arab Americans in the US, but the Arab American Institute believes the number to be twice as high, at 3.7 million. 

Recognised communities receive part of the $675 billion divided by Congress for services like language-specific voting materials, targeted community health research and minority status protections against discrimination.

More than 1,900 hate crimes reported by state law enforcement agencies were left out of official FBI stats

Under the Trump administration, the FBI, community organisations and media outlets have tracked a rise in hate crimes. In 2016, the FBI recorded 6,121 hate crime incidents in its Hate Crimes Statistics report, logging 58 anti-Arab hate crimes and 307 anti-Muslim hate crimes - a 19 percent spike from 2015. By comparison, The Arab American Institute reported double that figure of hate crimes in both 2015 and 2016.

Since the passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act in 1990, the FBI has collected hate crime data in conjunction with state governments and local law enforcement. The figures in the reports are acknowledged to be underreported, by the FBI's own admission and by many advocacy organisations.

This happens partially because law enforcement agencies in many states are not required to report hate crime data.

Many states required to share hate incidents also fall short. In 2016, only 72 out of 584 New York law enforcement agencies submitted hate crime incident reports to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, while the rest recorded zero incidents or blank data.

Identifying victims of hate crimes is where census representation comes into play.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which also oversees the Census Bureau, originally allowed an "anti-Arab" identifier of hate crimes in annual reports. In 1992, the FBI removed the anti-Arab section, under recommendation of the OMB, "in order to comply with federal data collection standards relating to race and ethnicity," according to the FBI's Crime Statistics Management Unit.

In 2013, after the Sikh Temple massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, then FBI director Robert Mueller instructed the Criminal Justice Information Services Division to add anti-Sikh, Anti-Arab and anti-Hindu as sections, a decision that was implemented in 2015.

According to Under Threat, Underreported, a report by the Arab American Institute, the FBI worked with the Office of Management and Budget and identified who comprised the "anti-Arab" category based on the American Community Survey's (ACS) arbitrary collection of "Arab ancestry" data since 2005.

Between 1992 and 2015, researchers at the Arab American Institute discovered that without an "anti-Arab" category, several states still registered anti-Arab hate crimes, which the FBI aggregated as "other ethnicity/national origin" data.

In the same report, researchers found that between 2012 and 2015, "more than 1,900 hate crimes reported by state law enforcement agencies were left out of official FBI stats." Effectively, hate against Arab Americans was rendered invisible at the highest level.

One of the biggest challenges for community organisations like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), is the lack of accurate hate crime data. They rely on media reporting to fill in some of the gaps in FBI and law enforcement statistics, says Lakshmi Sridaran, director of National Policy and Advocacy at SAALT.

Identifying victims of hate crimes is where census representation comes into play

The Middle Eastern or North African category floated by the Census Bureau expands on the FBI's patchy definition, defining the participant as "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Middle East and North Africa," which includes but is not limited to "Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Israeli, Iraqi, Algerian and Kurdish."

However, after the late addition of a citizenship question on the Census, immigrants and Arab Americans have fewer reasons to trust the process.

"The [impact of the] MENA category is two-fold in the sense that Bay Ridge could be afforded some of the resources that the Arab community has never had," Mahmoud said. "But the risks in what the administration might do with the data are always there."

Read more: Living with a torn identity: Being an immigrant in Trump's America

Many community organisations working with Arab Americans serve a dual purpose of liaising with federal agencies and law enforcement to guarantee their safety, while turning around to protect communities from law enforcement and government surveillance.

"The entry point is always communities having to meet law enforcement where they are, but law enforcement must do anti-racism training and meet communities where they're at," Sridaran said. This is why, she added, the census category is important.

The NYPD's relationship to the Muslim and Arab community has a turbulent history. An AP investigation in 2011 brought to light the NYPD's unconstitutional surveillance programmes in multiple Muslim communities across New York and New Jersey.

Following the investigation, many lawsuits were brought against the controversial Demographics Unit, which carried out the surveillance. Ray Kelly, NYPD commissioner until 2013, defended the unit as recently as 2016, calling it a "very effective programme" aimed at finding "more granular information about who lives in New York City."

When Tasnim and her family fill out the 2020 Census, their experiences of bigotry are forcefully assimilated

In 2013, the NYPD created the Inspector General post, which investigates surveillance operations against political and religious groups, and in 2014 the Demographics Unit was formally dismantled.

Hassan vs. New York, one of the largest lawsuits against the NYPD, was settled in April. In the terms of the settlement, the NYPD agreed to "not engage in suspicionless surveillance on the basis of religion or ethnicity."

A 2016 Inspector General report showed that 95 percent of surveillance operations still targeted Muslim communities, fortifying the existing distrust.

The use of census information for more nefarious ends has a historical precedent in the US. In the 1940s, information collected on Japanese Americans was used as grounds for sending them to internment camps. And more recently, in 2002, the Census Bureau provided neighbourhood data on Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security.

Even with skepticism regarding the federal government's track record with Census data, "The reality is that a lot of victims of hate crimes suffer in silence, and accurate data from the Census can help," says Albert Fox Cahn, Legal Director of CAIR-NY.

The figures in the reports are acknowledged to be underreported, by the FBI's own admission and by many advocacy organisations

Advocacy groups are fighting the war one battle at a time.

The AAI has sued the Office of Management and Budget for not responding to information requests about the methodology in how the MENA category will now be recorded, and after adding a citizenship question, the Census Bureau is facing six lawsuits from over two dozen cities and states.

Many community organisations are in rapid-response mode, providing constant "know your rights" trainings around the Census. Lakshmi Sridaran says that recent decisions by the Census Bureau are "part of a connected strategy by this administration to skew the count and depopulate communities of colour."

Arab Americans are facing a critical impasse reminiscent if not worse than after 9/11; having to deal with mounting hate in the face of indefinitely prolonged invisibility.

Predictably, the cloak comes off when Arabs are interchangeable targets of the 'War on Terror', presidential buzzwords or outright banned, precisely for being the "other".


Azmi Haroun is a Syrian-American writer and activist studying at Columbia Journalism School.

Follow him on Twitter: @asmuchazmi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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