Posted on September 18, 1995 in Washington Watch

Anti-Arab discrimination is alive and well at the American beverage company that produces the popular drink, “Arizona Iced Tea.”

Earlier this year the company fired twenty-one of its sales staff – all Arab American. The twenty-one were mostly sales managers and salesmen. They had been long-time employees of the company who had previously been recognized for the significant role they played in making “Arizona Iced Tea” a national success.

Until the late 1980’s the company had been mainly a small brewery operating in the New York City area. When the company introduced Arizona Iced Tea into its product line in 1992, they turned to their Arab American sales staff to push the new drink.

The Arab American staff marketed the drink by going initially to the over 2000 Arab American small store owners in the New York City area. From there they were sent to Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere around the United States again introducing Arizona Iced Tea in each community through the thousands of Arab-owned stores.

As the company grew from a few million in sales in the late 1980’s to four hundred million today, the Arab sales staff were promoted in recognition of their efforts.

One of the fired Arab Americans, for example, had been promoted from salesperson to manager with 15 employees under his leadership, in recognition that he had increased annual sales of Arizona Iced Tea in his area to over 1.2 million cases of the beverage.

Success was only one side of the coin of the Arab American experience with the Arizona Iced Tea Company —bigotry was the other. The twenty-one fired men have complained that discrimination had long been a part of their relationship with the company. While, for example, Christian and Jewish holidays were observed, requests of the twenty-one, who were Muslim, to be able to celebrate the Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha were denied.

Both management and other employees at the Arizona Iced Tea Company frequently made anti-Arab comments to the Arab staff. One of the fired Arabs complained that the Arabs were called “the animals,” another that they were called “thieves.”

They were taunted after the bombing of the World Trade Center. One of the owners of the company teased the men saying, “Do anything but don’t blow up the World Trade Center again.” Others made comments to the Arab staff implying that they were responsible for or linked to the bombing.

With the hiring of a new supervisor at the Arizona Iced Tea Company in April of 1995, the situation deteriorated even further. After the bombing in Oklahoma City that supervisor made openly provocative comments about the Arab employees. He made fun of their names and suggested that they were responsible for the bombing. They were taunted with comments like, “Did you leave your bags in the Oklahoma hotel?” and “I hope I don’t find a bomb in my mailbox.”

This new supervisor then proceeded to put in place a company-wide reorganization which he was overheard to describe as “having to clean out all this garbage” – meaning to remove the Arab sales staff.

The Arab American employees were demoted and humiliated in an effort to force them to leave their jobs.

When the Arab employees protested this reorganization to the company’s owner they were told they should accept the decision or leave. After hiring an attorney to advise them, they were notified by the company that “all the Arab guys should come in to pick up their final checks.”

This entire episode is a shocking example of the fact that despite the successes that Arab Americans have experienced on many levels in American society, discrimination still exists and can be a real danger to the security of many Arab Americans living in the U.S.

A deeper lesson, however, can be learned by the case and that is the real economic power and patent political power of the Arab American community.

In a real sense, the success of Arizona Iced Tea is the result of Arab American marketing of the product by targeting the thousands of Arab American stores that dominate the grocery business in several U.S. cities. With 2000 stores in New York City, 700 in Chicago, 600 in San Francisco, over 1000 in Michigan, and thousands more nationwide, Arab American merchants can become a real economic and political power – if they are organized.

They were organized to sell Arizona Iced Tea and they can and should now be organized to defend the Arabs who were discriminated against by that company.

A conference call arranged by the Arab American Institute brought together Arab American small business leaders from six cities. They have agreed to work together to support this case. Beyond that they are also considering how to harness their collective strength to enhance their political, economic and social impact in this country.

We remember how the Arab American store owners in New York were instrumental in winning an election campaign for a New York state legislator in the 1980’s: purchasing over 100,000 shopping bags with the candidate’s portrait and slogan, they distributed those bags with the candidates campaign literature to all of their customers during the days before the election. Later, the victorious candidate acknowledged that the Arab American store owners had provided the necessary boost his campaign needed to win.

The 350 Arab American store owners in Cleveland employed the same tactics to help Mayor Mike White with his first mayoral campaign. And in Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit the networks of Arab Americans store owners have played important roles in electing mayors and other candidates to state and local posts.

The collective strength of the Arab American small store owners can be a powerful instrument in the Arab American community’s campaign for empowerment. They can develop an agenda to advance their communities’ interests, protest against discrimination, protect themselves against violence and harassment and advance the community’s broader concerns.

If the success of Arizona Iced Tea and that company’s unfair treatment of its Arab employees teaches Arab Americans anything – it should be that the community has power and the time to use it is now.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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