Injun trouble in Alabama

Gambling proprietors in Alabama have been trying to pass off their slot machines (prohibited under state law) as a form of bingo (legal in some counties). Gov. Bob Riley is trying to stop them with a special task force and mostly successful lawsuits. Warnings of impending raids have recently forced the shutdown of several giant bingo farms that siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars a year from customers.

The gambling industry is fighting back with a barrage of TV ads lampooning the governor and calling for a statewide referendum to legalize gambling. Naturally, this would be done on terms favorable to the big establishments, protecting them from competition.

One of the industry’s favorite tactics is to portray Riley as a pawn of the Mississippi Choctaws, whose casinos lure customers from Alabama. The ads imply, without actually saying so, that Riley is trying to kill off Alabama bingo farms because they would compete with established Choctaw casinos. The inference is that Riley must have taken bribes from the Indians.

If Riley were that corrupt, it’s hard to see why he would serve the interests of Mississippi Indians instead of Alabama gambling tycoons like Milton McGregor and Ronnie Gilley, who’ve spent generously on state politicians (aided by our loose ethics laws, and mechanisms such as PAC-to-PAC transfer, which is illegal in civilized states). But constant repetition, without saying anything actionably false, has sufficed to make the lie about Riley and the Indians seem true.

Here’s the most frequently aired commercial:

The innuendo that Riley works for the Indians has a history. Supporters of Riley’s Democratic rivals for governor (Don Siegelman in 2002 and Lucy Baxley in 2006) tried to claim that Riley was connected to the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal. You see, the Mississippi Choctaws had hired Abramoff and Ralph Reed to lobby against a 1999 Alabama gambling bill. Abramoff had managed to convince Choctaw leaders that the Alabama bill was a potential threat to the Choctaws’ gambling business.1

Abramoff, Reed, and Riley all opposed gambling in Alabama. All three men are Republicans. Therefore, Democrats reasoned, all three men must be corrupt Indian hirelings. (Makes sense if you don’t think about it.)

Here’s an ad from the 2006 Baxley campaign. Never mind the misleading innuendoes, which died out with Baxley’s defeat. Notice, though, the ad’s “Indian war chant” soundtrack, played so low that it probably never registered consciously with the typical viewer.2

It is still remarkable to me that Baxley’s ad stirred up no complaints of ethnic stereotyping. One reason may have been that Baxley, as a Democrat and a woman, had the support of those who would have been most likely to complain. Also, Alabama has a proportionally smaller American Indian population than any of the surrounding states. The state’s only federally recognized tribe (the Poarch Band of Creek Indians) has kept a relatively low profile and avoided conflict with the state while developing its own gambling industry on tribal lands.

An important change in the gambling issue has occurred since 2002 and 2006: While Mississippi Indians remain the bad guys, gambling in Alabama is now being portrayed as a positive good rather than a regrettable evil. Now that courts have found that “electronic bingo” violates even the most tortured legal definitions of “bingo,” gambling interests have more to gain than to lose by conceding that Alabama bingo competes with Mississippi casinos.

So as the debate heats up, and the corporate cash is dispensed, we may see renewed attacks on the Choctaws that employ ethnic stereotypes in some way. In the campaign to secure a legal basis for gambling, anything goes.

Alabamians voted down a state lottery in 1999, and they have a low tolerance for gambling in any form. The majority’s evangelical faith makes them receptive to arguments that gambling is an unjust or inefficient strategy for funding public services. The only way the gambling industry can win is to establish the premise that, like it or not, gambling is here to stay.

Then, in order to keep things at a gut level, they’ll need to frame the question as one of whether Indians or white people will be allowed to run casinos where Alabamians gamble. As with any appeal to racism, they’ll have to be subtle about it, or it could backfire.

Here’s hoping it does.


1 Ralph Reed and I were acquainted as students at Emory University, where we organized for very different causes. Ralph went on to become the founding director of the Christian Coalition and a prominent face of the New Right. Afterward he went into the lobbying business, offering in essence to deliver evangelical activists to the highest bidder. The Abramoff affair derailed his bid to become lieutenant governor of Georgia and imposed a brief exile from public affairs. Now it appears that he’s back in the evangelical organizing business.
2 The audio reminds me of Atlanta Braves fans performing the “tomahawk chop.”

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