Alcohol Debate in Oklahoma Turns Testy After Indian Comment
A Republican state lawmaker said Thursday that a plan to expand beer and wine sales in Oklahoma would disproportionally affect Native Americans because they are "predisposed to alcoholism."
The comment from Rep. Todd Russ of Cordell during a debate over the measure, which passed on a 61-30 vote, drew a sharp rebuke from the chairman of the House Native American Caucus.
The resolution calls for a statewide vote on proposed changes to the Oklahoma Constitution needed to allow wine and cold, strong beer sales in grocery and convenience stores.
During debate, Russ said the plan would have a particularly negative effect on Oklahoma's Native American population because he said they process alcohol differently than other races and are "predisposed to alcoholism."
Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa and a member of the Creek Nation, criticized the statements.
"He was out of order to disparage Native Americans on the House floor in the manner he did," Kirby said.
Oklahoma is among the states with the highest percentage of Native Americans, about 8.5 percent of the state's population.
Kirby said later that Russ apologized for the comment and that Kirby considered the matter settled.
But Russ' comments reinforce a negative stereotype that Native Americans have been trying to get rid of for years, said Mike Graham, founder of United Native America, a state and federal advocacy group for American Indians.
"He's apparently very uneducated and ill-informed on what brings about alcoholism," said Graham, a member of the Cherokee Nation. "Alcoholism and drug addiction are problems with every race and ethnicity."
The resolution, which now heads to a conference committee for further deliberation, is the result of months of negotiations between multiple stakeholders in the alcohol industry in Oklahoma — distillers, brewers, wholesalers, distributors and different retail groups. A companion bill pending in the Senate is reportedly more than 200 pages long.
Most of Oklahoma's liquor laws were developed in the late 1950s and include a thorny mix of statutes and constitutional amendments that can't be changed without a vote of the people. Currently, liquor, wine and beer in excess of 3.2-percent alcohol can be sold only at package stores, which are strictly licensed and regulated and closed on Sundays.
Oklahoma is one of only five states in which low-point beer is sold. Unlike strong beer, it can be refrigerated and purchased at grocery and convenience stores until 2 a.m. and on Sundays.