Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Lowe’s Controversy—Moving Forward

                Three weeks after the home improvement store Lowe’s offended the American-Arab community by pulling its ad from the TLC channel show All American Muslim and after a lackluster response by the national American-Arab organizations, we need to look at how the “community” needs to act now to prevent future affronts.  The problem with our community is that we are reactionary rather than "preventionary” community. Yes, this is a new word which means that we have to take action now to prevent any further politician, corporation or any other person from affronting our community.  We need to make the next perpetrator of racism an example of why such action will not be tolerated.
              Our community has mandated confronting and preventing discrimination to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) which is celebrating its 31st year, having been founded by Senator James Aburizk (D-SD   1973-1979) in 1980 after FBI agents dressed up like Arab oil sheiks to “sting” members of Congress. Outraged at this negative portrayal of American-Arabs, Senator Aburizk went around the US and organized ADC chapters in major cities. I was at the founding meeting in Chicago in 1980 and served as the Chicago Regional Director in 1984 and Chicago Chapter President in 1988-1990 and again in 2009.

            ADC enjoyed many victories and was very successful in combating discrimination in the 1980s. During that time, ADC confronted discrimination head on.  One notable campaign in 1988 involved the Nomad doll. The book A Short Course in International Marketing Blunders shows how a US corporation’s (Coleco) attempt to ethnically stereotype American-Arabs caused its downfall.

What landed on Coleco, however, wasn’t the issue of shelf life. It was the issue of ethnic stereotyping engendered in the Nomad, one of Rambo’s most ruthless enemies==a burnoose-wearing, obviously Arab figure described in its package insert as ‘dangerous, cold, unstable, and treacherous’ with ‘an intimate knowledge of sabotage.’ In short, the Nomad action figure embodied everything people thought they knew about real Arabs.

The outrage was deafening, with Arab-American community activist groups and others demanding the toy be removed from store shelves.  And newspapers across the country reported on planned boycotts and anti-Coleco media campaigns.[1]

                ADC organized a massive campaign across the country which helped bring “Coleco—once the King of Toys and global marketer of Scrabble and Parchesi board games” out of business.[2] The campaign involved demonstrations in front of Toys R Us stores and a more effective telephone campaign that sent hundreds if not thousands of calls into the Coleco headquarters complaining about the insidious attempt to stereotype American-Arabs.  ADC taught an American corporation a lesson in the 1980s and “prevented” other corporations from manufacturing another racist toy.

                This lesson, however, was short lived as the first and second Gulf Wars and 911 perpetuated further negative stereotypes against American-Arabs.  Additionally, ADC’s stance during the first Gulf War in which its position was that Iraq’s invasion into Kuwait was an internal Arab matter for which the US and the world should not get involved hurt ADC’s stance and funding. As a result, ADC ‘s prestige as the premier American-Arab organization suffered.  Consequently, ADC has not fought the good fight against discrimination since.

                Now in 2011, ADC needs to go back to its roots.  ADC gained prestige by combating discrimination head on, i.e. Coleco.  The incident with Lowe’s was not confronted with the same pizazz and fervor as ADC confronted discrimination in the 1980s. Back then, computers were not widespread; the internet, and consequently email, was not a part of our lives; and cell phones were still too premature.  Yet, ADC responded instantaneously (within a week, which was good in those days).  With the Lowe’s, ADC’s response was at best lukewarm—calling for demonstrations by the second weekend.  

                While the NY Times on December 23, 2011 issued an excellent editorial which called Lowe’s decision to pull its ad a foolish judgment call,[3] it was not because of any American-Arab outrage.

                ADC needs to follow-up on this issue.  It needs to meet with Lowe’s officers and present a program to educate the American public about Muslims and Arabs and present Lowe’s with the bill.  Lowe’s has to rectify its image with Muslims and Arabs by combating the Islamophobia that has engulfed the American mainstream.

                Additionally, ADC needs to develop a rapid response committee of American-Arab activists who will respond to text messages instantaneously whenever discrimination rears its ugly head again—and it will.  In this age of lighting communications, ADC needs to respond quickly to get its message across.  The AT&T commercial which pokes fun at other wireless networks for disseminating information that is 42 seconds old is a reflection on how fast communication is moving in this second decade of the 21st Century.  

                In retrospect, ADC should have sent a text message to its committed activist such as the following 159 character message within hours of the Lowe’s controversy:

Call Lowes 1-8004456937 press 4 then 3 and complain about its pulling ad from All American Muslim Show. Tell them you will not shop there unless ad is replaced

                I communicated this text message to an ADC staff member—but nothing was done. 

                Now let us understand what we need to do to move forward—to be a “preventionary” force.  ADC needs to identify 100-200 of its very active members who will be willing to act immediately whenever it receives an “action alert” text message from the national ADC office.   Additionally, these members must be committed to get 10 relatives and friends to so act.  Had Lowe’s received a  1,000 telephone calls within hours of its decision to pull the ads, it may have rescinded its decision or at the very least it would have put ADC in a better bargaining position to have Lowe’s help ADC fight the Islamophobia that created this controversy.

                Additionally, ADC executives need to read Saul D. Alinsky’s book Rules For Radicals Although written prior to his death in 1972, Allinsky’s book provides out of the box thinking for organizing campaigns for social justice.   ADC needs to be creative, spontaneous and enthusiastic in meeting its mission to confront discrimination against American-Arabs just as it did in the 1980s.  

(  © Copyright, Fadi Zanayed.  Publication or distribution of this material is allowed provided its content is not altered and the source and its author are cited.)

[1]A Short Course in International Marketing Blunders, p. 136 (See also 1998 - Coleco Nomad was one of Rambo's antagonists from this mid-eighties line of action figures. The Arab community protested the stereotypical portrayal of an Arab as a terrorist and were successful in having the figure pulled. know the controversy was in 1988 or there about, not 1998 as this site states.)
[2] Supra

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