House Rep Apologizes for Saying Native Americans are Predisposed to Alcoholism

By Dorri Olds 04/27/16

Oklahoma House Rep. Todd Russ caused an uproar after espousing outdated information about alcoholism within the Native American community.

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House Rep Apologizes for Saying Native Americans are Predisposed to Alcoholism
Photo viaokhouse.gov

An Oklahoma lawmaker issued a public apology on Monday for saying that Native Americans are “predisposed to alcoholism.”

House Representative Todd Russ made the comment last Thursday while arguing against a bill that would make beer and wine more accessible in Oklahoma's grocery and convenience stores. “The white man took advantage of the Native American people for hundreds of years at the rim of an alcohol bottle,” Russ said. “They cannot process that like other people and yet we want to put that, more of that out for them to just be taken advantage of.” Though it's not hard to see that his intentions were good, many took offense and saw it as an ethnic slur that only reinforced the stereotype that Native Americans are genetically prone to alcohol abuse. 

The Fix reached out to an expert in alcohol research, Dr. Howard J. Edenberg, who is the Scientific Co-Director for Medical Sciences at the Indiana Alcohol Research Center. "In my opinion, genetics can make a substantial difference in who succumbs to alcoholism," Edenberg told The Fix, "but it’s not hereditary in the sense that muscular dystrophy is." His research has shown that the genetic component of alcoholism "is difficult to measure due to socioeconomic and environmental issues which are roughly equal."

In Russ' apology, which he wrote in an email to Indian Country Today, the state representative revealed his personal experience with alcoholism, witnessing it as a child in his grandfather and four of his five siblings. "My life has been ripped and torn and broken from the dark nature of alcohol from my childhood," he wrote. "Because of my personal experiences, I am passionate about derailing efforts of the intoxicating liquor and wine industries to make alcohol even more readily available with fewer restrictions. In my concern for the unsuspecting public and other social groups, I let my emotions cloud my thoughts and words. I am very sorry and truly meant no hurt or harm."

"I apologize for the unintended pain I have caused Native Americans by my statement that was based upon outdated information," he wrote. "Substance abuse has NO preference of race, gender, ethnicity, religion or socio-economic status."

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.