Gambling, Racism, and Crony Capitalism

Political favors and an unsettling definition of "Indian Blood" mar Massachusetts's entry into the casino business



After years of wrangling, Massachusetts is poised to enter the casino gambling business; pending legislation would allow for three licensed casinos and one slot parlor, with the state taking a 25 percent cut of daily casino revenues and 40 percent from slots. If there is a more exploitative means of raising government revenue, I can't think of one, but I don't oppose the bill on moral grounds. The state shouldn't be empowered to protect us from our own poor judgment, bad habits and compulsions, especially since the effort to do so (however futile) always involves deprivations of liberty. 

But I do oppose the gambling bill, partly on libertarian grounds. Gambling should be legalized, or at least decriminalized, online and in real life, not usurped by public/private partnerships. Let the market, not the legislature, dictate the number of casinos statewide, subject to the land use regulations imposed on shopping centers, stadiums and other large commercial enterprises. The state shouldn't be in the business of gambling, in league with a few favored developers or Indian tribes who preside over state sanctioned monopolies which seem likely to employ at least a few legislators: The state senate reduced a proposed five year ban on working in the industry after leaving office to a one year ban (surreally explaining that a lengthy ban reflected mistrust of legislators that enactment of the ban would only exacerbate.) The gambling bill is not a libertarian initiative: it's crony capitalism, tainted by the self-righteous racism that pervades the regulation of Indian tribes and legalized Indian gaming.

What word other than racism accurately describes the concept of "Indian blood," governing enrollment in tribes and the opportunity to profit from Indian casinos? What else but primitive notions of racial purity underlie the federal bureaucracy's process for obtaining a "Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood," (in Bureau of Indian Affairs parlance, a CDIB)? How do you qualify for a CDIB? Your "degree of Indian blood is computed from ancestors of Indian blood," who were named on a tribal census roll or other documents approved by the Interior Department. 

This is a system that would have made sense to architects of the Nuremberg Race Laws. Yes, Hitler's laws were intentionally malevolent, defining degrees of Jewish blood for purposes of de-naturalizing and eventually murdering Jews, while our laws are intentionally benevolent, designed to compensate Native Americans for historic injustices. But governments that dispense benefits or impose burdens on people because of their "bloodlines" all endorse the same pernicious myths of racial purity and impurity.  

What is Indian blood anyway? If I received a transfusion from a Native American, would I qualify for a certificate too? Or if a Native American received a transfusion from me, would she lose her certification of Indian blood? I recognize that the concept of Indian blood is not intended to be taken this literally, but biases about blood purity do fuel ugly controversies over transfusions and transplants. Besides, belief in bloodlines is often taken quite literally: it's spawned a genealogy industry that exploits an utterly irrational tendency to take pride in the status or accomplishments of distant ancestors; and it governs your right to claim membership in a tribe. To qualify for enrollment in the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts, you must "trace direct lineal descent" to an official 19th century Mashpee Indian. Bloodline membership rules like these are not always applied benevolently: The Cherokee Nation has expelled the descendants of black slaves who can't claim "Cherokee blood" (even if they can claim ancestors who were "owned"  by wealthy Cherokees. So much for reparations.)  

The Mashpee Wampanoags are expected to enjoy an advantage in the casino licensing competition (although legal complications await.) "Tribe Close to Jackpot," a recent Boston Globe headline declared. Is the jackpot deserved? Is it justified by blood or history? The Wampanoags owe their favored status to their success in obtaining federal recognition in 2007. They were then led by Glenn Marshall, who was convicted in 2008 of embezzling tribal funds and making illegal campaign contributions to congressional members; speaking of crony capitalism, he was in league with fellow felon Jack Abramoff. Marshall was also exposed as a convicted rapist whose lies about his past included an imaginary military record. Was this fabulist actually a Wampanoag, with Wampanoag "blood?" Who knows? "When the hell did he become Wampanoag," a high school classmate wondered about Marshall. "He always talked about being Portugese." 

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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