Racism claims: legitimate concerns or spurred by oversensitivity?

Last week, USA Today reported that charges of racism were made against soft drink giant, Coca-Cola, after an ad deemed by some to be controversial was uploaded on YouTube. The 60-second ad features three groups of characters, cowboys, badlanders and showgirls, racing through the desert to reach a giant bottle of Coke. Viewers were supposed to vote for their favorite teams, and a new version of the ad featuring the winning group would be aired during the Super Bowl.

So what’s the controversy? The ad starts with a man dressed in Arab-style clothes trying to lead a caravan of stubborn camels across the desert; however, he is not among the options to be a winner in the race.

Within hours, the ad and its supposedly racist tone drew fire from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies. Imam Ali Siddiqui, president of the Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies, said, “The Coke commercial for the Super Bowl is racist, portraying Arabs as backward and foolish Camel Jockeys, [as if] they have no chance to win in the world.”

What both groups didn’t know was that Coca-Cola was purposely keeping the Arab character a bit under wraps and had planned to develop him further on TV and online. The backstory of the Arab was supposed to be a secret part of Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl marketing strategy, not a slam against a certain race.

Interestingly, after Coca-Cola addressed the concerns and explained its side of the story, the ADC and Muslim Institute didn’t bother to issue an apology for falsely accusing Coca-Cola of racism, but instead stated that the Arab community had been “experiencing demonization in television and the media,” and therefore couldn’t be too careful when watching for racism.

This controversy is just one example of today’s trend toward increased sensitivity to racist concerns. Instead of waiting or asking for an explanation, both the ADC and Muslim Institute automatically assumed the worst about Coca-Cola and possibly harmed the company’s reputation.

Racism against any group is never right and is a legitimate concern, but since racism is known to be a touchy subject, companies like Coca-Cola would be unlikely to discriminate against a certain race. While it’s good to respect differing races and ethnicities, it would be better for groups to focus on truly discriminated people—like Arab women stoned in third-world countries or girls sold into sex trafficking in India­—rather than calling foul before knowing the whole story.