May 16, 2008

Wal-Mart and Muslim Americans

author_cn By C.N. Le

As globalization continues to effect American society and the world in general, I've been asking the question, how will these political and economic changes affect the cultural landscape of race relations?

While the final verdict is still being debated, I'd like to discuss one recent example of globalization that caught my eye -- as the Associated Press reports, Wal-Mart is catering to the Arab and Muslim American population in the Detroit area:

Aisle 3, which also features Eastern European and Hispanic food, represents many of the 550 items geared toward Arab-American walmart2ashoppers in the store that opened last week.

It might be statistically tiny in a store with more than 150,000 items, but it's symbolically huge for the world's largest retailer as it seeks to change from a cost-is-everything monolith to one that customizes its stores to meet neighborhood needs.

Managers say they seek peace with the neighborhood's merchants — and vow not to undercut them on Middle Eastern specialties. . . . the modifications go beyond merchandise: It has 35 employees who speak Arabic — noted in Arabic script on their badges. The store also  has hired a local Arab-American educator to teach the staff cultural sensitivity.

Is this another sign of the power of capitalism, or a sign that an icon of "traditional" American society and culture is increasingly accepting of Arabs and Muslims, or both?

To be honest, I'm not quite sure myself what Wal-Mart’s motivation is. On the one hand, we might say that since Arab and Muslim Americans are increasingly becoming integrated into the American mainstream, it makes sense for companies like Wal-Mart to recognize this demographic pattern and, at least in the Detroit area, to reflect the makeup of their surrounding community with culturally-appropriate products and services.

On the other hand, cynics might say that Wal-Mart did not become the world's largest corporation by accident -- it knows by now how to make money. muslim1aTherefore, Wal-Mart is simply milking the Arab and Muslim American community for as long as it takes them to drive out local small business competitors. After all, that would be the "capitalist" way  to do things, something that Wal-Mart has been known to do in the past.

I applaud Wal-Mart for taking this step to make at least one of their stores more appealing to Arab and Muslim Americans and to reflect the demographics of its surrounding community, even if their ultimate motivation is to make more money.

For me, the alternative -- ignoring the changing demographic and cultural changes in the local community -- would be worse than acknowledging these changes for the sole purpose of trying to rake in a little more money. As we should know by now, American society and American capitalism are not perfect but they are a practical reality of the society in which we live. I don't believe that it has to be an either-or" proposition -- I think both sides can benefit from this development.

I support ways of coexisting and engaging all sides in any particular question, issue, or debate, rather than taking a take-it-or-leave-it approach that only breeds more distrust. What do you think?


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You're right to point out that Wal-Mart's welcoming posture toward the Arab/Muslim population of Detroit is laudable-- and in my opinion, you're also right to point out that the motivation is doubtlessly the simple reality of capitalism: there's a lot of them there, so the retail giant had better at least make a cursory attempt at catering to them, as long as they've got dollars to spend and as long as they've got other options.

That's what kills me: for decades now, Wal-Mart's business model has been to enter a community, dominate its market, then drain it of its life-blood. 3/4 of everything on its shelves originates overseas in a near-slave economy in unsafe conditions-- a staggering portion of those products are recalled every year because they're found to be unsafe to the consumer as well. Meanwhile, responsible companies can't keep up, Wal-Mart encourages its stateside employees to burden the tax infrastructure for basic health needs, and its stock soars as the overall economy crumbles.

I'm working with Wake-Up Wal-Mart to help spread awareness of one simple fact: the largest employer in America has to be held to a higher standard.

I think that Walmart adapting to the culture of Arabs/Muslims is just part of the social change that we must endure. Fact is, there are more foreigners in America then ever before, and I give props to those who embrace them. When different cultures clash together, diffusion results. I find diffusion to be a great process because of it can benefit societies. Combining the Muslim/Arab culture with American culture can allow them to share ideas. It's nice to know that Walmart was offering some Arab/Muslim attractive products in their store in order to accomodate to a changing society. After all, it is social change, and we must keep up with it.

I can see how this adaptation by Wal-Mart seems a bit forced and money-oriented, but the truth is there are more Muslims (and other races) in the United States now than ever before. This has caused diffusion of their cultures among American societies are stores are going to most likely respond to this mixture of cultures. This diffusion is a great way for cultures to shares bits and pieces of their own world. And if Wal-Mart is doing it just for the money, so what? Let them do it. I think eventually all stores will have to respond to many, many cultures.

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