Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Mask of Racism (Part 1)

Chronic inebriates. This is what the City of Fairbanks, its police department and all the rest of the public policy makers here like to call the people with drinking problems who drink downtown (and who happen to be, 99 out of 100 times, Native). Lately there have been at least two articles in the Daily News Miner about the "chronic inebriate" problem. This is a re-occurring theme. And each time it reoccurs, I get more and more disturbed.

The last time this term cropped up was on August 19, in an article that blatted the headline: Fairbanks police step up patrols as downtown chronic inebriates increase. The nut of this story was that, under new police chief Zager, the city police are increasing their patrol unit by four in response to business owners' complaints that "a larger, younger chronic inebriate population is becoming increasingly violent."

There is so much that is so wrong with this article as well as the persistent and shrill attacks on the so-called chronic inebriates that it is hard to know where to begin. But for starters - let's look at why the City, the cops and everyone else in power in these parts uses the term "chronic inebriate" as opposed to the medically-accepted term "alcoholic"*.

These two terms are not interchangeable. If there is any organization that is up on the lingo associated with alcohol abuse, it's the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the NIH. The term "chronic inebriate" appears nowhere on its website or in its publications. It's not used in its research papers, press releases, FAQs, publications or fact sheets.

So, what is up with the persistent use of this phrase by Fairbanks' mayor, city council, and police force? The term itself is not formally defined in medical, sociological or psychological reference books, but is understood to mean a chronic alcoholic who is homeless and drinks in public. Thus if challenged, I suspect the city and its police chief would defend their usage of the term by saying that these are homeless drunks, and thus their use of the phrase is perfectly justified, racially neutral, and transparent. No man behind the curtain here.

Except for one troubling little issue ---- very few of the people that they are labeling as chronic inebriates are homeless. They have homes; most of them in villages, some of them in Fairbanks. They may be alcoholics, even very advanced-stage alcoholics, but they are not homeless.

A majority of this pool of downtown alcoholics (to call them what they are) are cyclical. Throughout the year, they come into town and for varying lengths of time end up on Two Street or along the river. They come in for a variety of reasons: to drink legally (if from a dry village), for medical, to shop, or to visit. The fact is --- people who suffer from alcoholism, no matter how good their intentions are when they get on the Fairbanks-bound plane, are going to have a hard time resisting booze that is $11 a bottle (the current going rate for R&R) and a virtually unlimited supply when bootlegging in the vil puts alcohol at anywhere from $50 to $300 a bottle.

Furthermore, even if these drinkers are from villages, they aren't homeless when in town either. The majority of village drinkers (even those with relatives in town) stay in hotels - and not flop hotels. There are quite a few hotels downtown that are all too happy to cater to the village alcoholic (and even tolerate the impacts that go along with that) who comes over and gets stuck in town on a bender. Thus, the chronic inebriates and their relatives contribute quite a handsome sum to the hotel industry, especially during the winter off-season --- something that is never mentioned by the troubled downtown business owners.

So, this is not really a chronic inebriate problem but an alcoholism problem --- the same heartbreaking disease that strikes so very many in the non-Native population. Yet if the city officials used the term "alcoholic", they would have to acknowledge that Natives are vulnerable to the same disease as non-Natives. And in doing so, they then would have to look at the ugly fact that Natives are denied, through widespread indifference, often willful ignorance (of the problem) and an abominable lack of resources, many of the options for help and support that the majority population can secure for its members that suffer this dreadful disease.

Better to use a different term. One that does not imply disease as much as the fault of the individual. The words chronic inebriate literally translate to always-drunk: a hopeless drunk. In other words, one that chooses to exist in a persistent state of drunkenness, with a not so subtle top note of insufficient moral and character fiber to snap out of their derelict and debauched state. Its baggage is the implication that this state of being arises out of the individual's agency (blame the victim), not through the conjunction of biological predisposition, personal choice and the roll of the cosmic dice as with disease.

On the surface, city officials talking about chronic inebriates appear to be engaged in a neutral and rational discussion of a problem that is vaguely medical in nature. Look deeper and what you see is a term that is being used to mask the same racial biases and prejudices that the majority population has nurtured against Native Americans since contact. Not so ironically, it is these same prejudices and stereotypes that are responsible for the chronic low socioeconomic status that contributes to the high alcoholism rates among Natives and restricts their options for treatment and prevention.

This type of code talking serves no one well. It is time for city officials and other policy makers to address the severe alcoholism problem that plagues this region as well as the rest of the state. Contrary to what police chief Zager said in the paper --- it is about social services (and medical and behavioral health services). Alcoholics of all backgrounds and races face significant challenges if they want to go into recovery here, particularly those living in small villages. It is not about adding more police or establishing alcohol impact zones or a do-not sell list. It is about taking a hard look at the reasons why the people in power (local, regional, state and federal) do not want to allocate funds for the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, but instead prefer to fund those institutions which punish and incarcerate rather than heal.

*Doubt this? A simple google search on both the web and the FDNM site comparing the two phrases will amply demonstrate the veracity of this statement.


tomandlou said...

It's a crime against humanity to withold treatment.Some might take years to reach,but it's part of the disease.The man(or woman) who is homeless is no worse than one who works goes home and abuses his wife,children or other.There are many times when help is offered it might be accepted.I know it took me 30 some years and its now 28 years since I've had a drink I wonder where I'd be today without help.You think maybe dead.

Deirdre Helfferich said...

Hey, Flic, would you be interested in taking your series and publishing it in the Republic? This is very interesting--the power of certain words and phrases to create a code that conveys bigoted attitudes is something people need to be reminded of.

kodiakgriff said...

Powerful stuff, and as usual, an excellent read!
The neuvo drunk term has started to spread. In A-town the new concern is the safety of the alcoholics. I am not sure if it is entirely sincere, or if it has helped bolster the ranks of the constabulary yet or not.
To me it looks like the term "chronic inebriates" is being used to soften the impact of alcoholics wandering the streets. I mean we don't want to scare off the touristas with the sad facts of our lives up here do we?
Here's a thought. Why not enforce the laws of public drunkenness that are already on the books? Then the offending party can be brought in and maybe even screened by a health care professional. If alcoholism is suspected then send them off to a treatment center for further help. If they have insurance then bill it, if not, then we the taxpayers suck it up.
In other words, the system is already in place, it is just not used much.
The administrative burden, the labor hours involved, and the lack of treatment facilities are all excuses for not doing the right thing. Funny thing is, if they start cracking down on the inebriates, won't the same problems come up? Maybe they are just going to reel them in for catch and release. Remember the town drunk and the open jail cell on the Andy Griffith show?
Just a thought, but what do I know. I live on an island in Alaska.

Anonymous said...