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The Tuskegee Experiment’s Long Shadow

Scholars examine the impact of conspiracy theories on African Americans

Have you checked the numbers on your social security card yet?
Rumor has it that the federal government keeps track of Black folks by
assigning them social security numbers that contain an even number in
the fifth digit.

If you are now rifling through your wallet looking for your social
security card, stop. The rumor is untrue. But it is one of several that
have been burning up the Internet in recent months, causing African
Americans of all walks of life to wonder, if only momentarily, about
the validity of these conspiratorial rumors.

Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie, according to Dr.
Anita Waters, a sociologist at Denison University, who describes such
theories as “ethnosociologies.” Yet, what makes Black belief in
conspiracy theories so difficult to interpret and evaluate is that in
many recent cases the rumors are based in fact.

Black America’s willingness to entertain beliefs in conspiracy
theories, sometimes referred to as “urban legends,” has been widely
studied and analyzed by a variety of scholars — most particularly, by
those in the fields of folklore, political science, medicine, and
public health.

Most who investigate these tales believe that they are a
significant phenomenon in African American culture dating back to the
earliest contact between Africans and Europeans.

Dr. Patricia Turner, a professor of African American studies at the
University of California-Davis has made an exhausting compilation of
African American rumors and conspiracy theories. She believes that from
Black Americans’ encounter with racism, “folklore emerges in which
individuals translate their uneasiness about the fate of the group as a
whole into more concrete, personal terms.”

Whether scholars think that the widespread interest in rumors is a
problem for African Americans also varies by academic discipline. In
general, folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists tend
to see these rumors, legends, and conspiracy theories as just another
product of the same cultural creativity that produced the blues, jazz,
and rap music. In effect, a way to confront, interpret, and resist the
dominant culture.

However, political scientists and medical researchers who
understand the history and fears that serve as a backdrop for these
tales, tend to view these urban legends more negatively.

“The problem with conspiracy theories is that they don’t really
help people formulate specific politics for actual change,” notes
Professor Clarence Lusane of American University, author of Pipe Dream
Blues, Racism and the War on Drugs.

Medical researchers go even further, saying that the widespread
willingness to entertain conspiracy theories about AIDS and medical
experiments represent a major threat to the health and well-being of
African Americans.

How Many True Believers?

It is impossible to know exactly how many African Americans believe
in some sort of conspiracy. However, various studies have found that at
least some of these beliefs are quite widespread.

In 1991, the American Journal of Public Health reported that, as
part of an attempt to educate African Americans about the dangers of
AIDS and HIV infection, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
surveyed 1,056 Black church members in the South and Midwest.
Thirty-five percent of the respondents believed that AIDS was a form of
genocide, and another 30 percent were unsure.

Forty-four percent believed that the government is not telling the
truth about AIDS, while 35 percent were unsure. An additional 34
percent believed that AIDS is man-made.

Additional evidence comes from a lengthy New York Times/WCBS-TV
poll that queried 408 African Americans about popular conspiratorial
theories. The survey found that 77 percent of Black respondents thought
there was some truth to the statement, “the government deliberately
singles out and investigates Black-elected officials to discredit them
in a way it doesn’t do with White officials.” Seventy percent of
respondents believed that “the government deliberately makes sure that
drugs are easily available in poor Black neighborhoods to harm Black
people.” And 29 percent believed that “the virus that causes AIDS was
deliberately created in a laboratory to infect Black people.”

Ever since Richard Hofstadter’s investigation of right-wing
conspiracy theorists — featured in his article “The Paranoid Style in
American Politics” — many academics have accepted the assertion that
believers are marked by a sort of personal or cultural paranoia that
engenders feelings of powerlessness and victimization that interferes
with their participation in mainstream social change.

On the other hand, since African Americans have been the targets of
documented conspiracies, many folklorists and sociologists argue that
believing in conspiracies may not only be rational, but even positive.

Freedom of Information Act documents have proven that during the
Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO program, the FBI did plant
informants who helped destabilize organizations such as the Black
Panthers. Similarly, the recently released Mississippi Sovereignty
Commission papers conclusively revealed that there was at least a state
government conspiracy to track and harass civil rights leaders.

Waters, says that “treating conspiracy theories as invariably
mistaken is unrealistic in societies where concerted and secretly
planned social action is an everyday accomplishment of industries and
government agencies.”

She has subjected Hofstadter’s predictions to an empirical test and concluded that they don’t hold true for African Americans.

“African Americans who believe in conspiracies are better educated
than those who do not believe, they are active politically, they are in
touch with the community, and they are closer than are skeptics to the
front line of both interethnic conflict and cooperation,” she says.

“Conspiracy theories flourish, in part because they are ways to
foster solidarity and collective action,” says Theodore Sasson, a Black
sociologist who has studied conspiracy theories in Boston’s African
American communities. “In several of the discussions in which
conspiracy theories were discussed, participants explicitly urged one
another to engage in one form or another of resistance against White

Turner goes much further, and argues that even conspiracy theories
that are blatantly wrong or absurd — such as one asserting that
Church’s Fried Chicken makes Black men sterile — can still have
positive effects.

“The fact that rumors function as a sort of self-imposed consumer
harness within the African American community is laudable,” she says.
“The thought of precious dollars being spent on luxury-style consumer
items produced by White corporations violates the community’s sense of
the value of financial independence and self-determination and inspires

Instruments of Political Manipulation or Social Change?

While theorists such as Turner, Walters, and Sasson argue that
rumors can be useful, Lusane and others continue to maintain that the
Black community’s ready acceptance of conspiracies has largely negative
political consequences.

“The biggest political problems with conspiracy theories in the
Black community is that they almost always give Black politicians and
leaders a kind of political shock absorber that allows them to avoid
some responsibility for their mistakes,” Lusane says.

“[A] good example of this concerns the Reverend Henry Lyons and the
National Baptist Convention. It is now perfectly clear that Lyons was
personally misusing Convention funds. However, there are many people
close to him who may be innocent, but who will still lose out if he is
removed. Even if they know he is guilty, it is still in their own best
interest to perpetuate the idea that he is the victim of a government

Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a psychologist and author of The Crisis
in Black and Black warns Black folks to reject succumbing to
all-encompassing conspiracy theories.

“African Americans must recognize that many of the problems that
confront African Americans are in reality American problems. This
demands that great care always be taken not to substitute paranoia for
caution and vigilance and risk [turning] potential friends among Blacks
and non-Blacks into sworn enemies.”

Many conservatives decry Black America’s belief in plots as a
defense mechanism to avoid taking responsibility for “real” problems —
such as drug dealing and illegitimacy — that African Americans would
prefer to deny.

Professor Shelby Steele, of the National Association of Scholars,
for example, has stated that believing in conspiracies prevents people
from really committing their efforts to achieve personal goals.

“If you actually believe that the society in which you live is
feeding AIDS and drugs to you to eliminate you, you are not going to
see your own possibilities in that society,” Steele says. “You’re not
going to move into the American mainstream. It’s a profoundly
destructive belief.”

Perhaps the only example of a major Black conspiracy theorist
creating a positive change in terms of health involves the late Elijah
Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad widely promoted
the theory that Europeans were plotting genocide against Blacks in
various forms including selling them drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, and

In response, Muhammad taught his followers to take steps to protect
themselves. He authored Eat to Live which advocated a healthier, lower
fat diet; and preached abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
Muhammad showed that the one way conspiracy theories may be useful is
if they help people make reasonable changes to avoid risks.

RELATED ARTICLE: Conspiracies Everywhere

Sometimes it seems that African Americans see conspiracies everywhere.

The cover of journalist Barbara Reynolds’s new book, No, I Won’t
Shut Up, prominently features a “Special Report: Dr. King, Ron Brown:
Crimes, Cover-ups, and Conspiracies.”

Commentator Tony Brown has published Empower the People, a
seven-step plan to overthrow the conspiracy that is stealing your money
and freedom. Brown’s alleged conspiracy involves an “evil cabal” that
corrupted the Freemasons in the eighteenth century.

Educator Jawanza Konjufu has become an underground bestseller by
publishing four different volumes of Countering the Conspiracy to
Destroy Black Boys.

In her book, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Rumor in
African-American Culture, Dr. Patricia Turner — a professor of the
African American studies at the University of California-Davis who has
made an exhausting compilation of African American rumors and
conspiracy theories — discusses virtually all of the popular Black
“urban legends.” These include:

* the ubiquitous “Kentucky fried rat,” found in a bucket of take out chicken;

* the belief that Church’s Fried Chicken, Tropical Fantasy fruit
drink, and KOOL Cigarettes contain a secret ingredient to make Black
men sterile:

* the belief that Troop brand athletic clothing was owned by the
KKK and if you cut open the lining, it contained the slogan, “To Rule
Over Oppressed People;”

* the belief that Reebok sneakers were made in apartheid South Africa;

* the belief that Gloria Vanderbilt went on the Oprah Winfrey show
and said that she didn’t want Black women wearing her designs:

* the belief that the National Centers for Disease Control was
involved in the Atlanta Child Murders as part of an experiment to
extract the cancer drug interferon from the tips of Black boy’s penises;

* the belief that AIDS was created in Africa when a U.S. government biological warfare experiment got out of hand; and

* the belief that the government deliberately markets crack and other drugs in Black neighborhoods.

— Paul Ruffins

RELATED ARTICLE: Conspiracy Theories Are Bad for Black Health

In the medical arena, at least, there seems to be incontrovertible
evidence that conspiracy theories are a major impediment to Black

This is particularly true concerning AIDS, where at least one study
found that those who feel that it is a genocide plot were not any more
likely to protect themselves from HIV infection by using condoms or
abandoning drugs. To make things worse, conspiracy theories can
actually sabotage positive programs.

African Americans’ fears of conspiracies also interfered with the
population’s participation in health and biomedical research.

Compared to other Americans, Black folks are at much higher risk
for cancer, stroke, kidney failure, AIDS, and many other serious
diseases and conditions. Yet, researchers in virtually every field of
medicine have found it very difficult to attract and retain African
Americans in clinical studies — even though in 1993, the National
Institutes of Health Revitalization Act required all applicants for NIH
and Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Administration grants to increase
their efforts to include minorities in human subject research.

In a 1997 paper entitled “Why Are African Americans
Under-Represented in Medical Research Studies,” published in Ethnic
Health, three researchers from the University of Iowa School of
Medicine concluded that fear of being treated like a “guinea pig,” was
a major factor — and that memories of the Tuskegee Experiment played a
major role in that fear.

The forty-year Tuskegee Experiment was designed to study the
“terminal effects” of the microbe causing syphilis. Black men infected
with the disease were deliberately left untreated to die, infect their
wives, and ultimately, their children.

As Mark Smith, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in
Baltimore notes, the African American community is “already alieanated
from the health care system and the government and … somewhat cynical
about the motives of those who arrive in their communities to help

He adds that the Tuskegge Syphilis Study “provided validation for
common suspicions about the ethical even-handedness in the medical
research establishment and in the federal government, in particular,
when it comes to Black people.”

Recently, a team of four researchers led by Philip Gorelick, M.D.,
MPH, tried to quantify how much of a role the fear of being a guinea
pig plays in reducing African Americans willingness to participate in
medical trials. The team found: “The primary reason that patients
withdrew from the study was concern about being the subject of
experimentation and the possibility of being a `guinea pig.'”

The researches also noted: “When family or friends were consulted,
83 percent reinforced the patients’ concern about medical

In order to try and overcome African Americans fear of
participating in medical experiments, the researchers advocate forming
a “recruitment triangle” that includes family members as well as the
patient and his or her primary doctors and other medical personnel.

The show of Tuskegee also inhibits African Americans from becoming
more actively involved in non-experimental programs, such as
bone-marrow transplants that would save thousands of lives.

Between 1998 and 1996, more than 4,400 bone marrow transplants from
unrelated donors were performed, but fewer than 3 percent involved
Black patients. One reason was because only 7 percent of the volunteers
in the National Marrow Donor Program are African American.

These small numbers are particularly serious because while Whites
can find a close enough match 70 percent of the time. African Americans
only have a 42 percent chance of finding a matching donor.

According to Robert Pinderhughes, the spokes-person for the marrow
donor program, the specter of Tuskegee lurks as an impediment. He
believes that every time a Black patient has a bad experience in a
hospital, it reinforces fears of Tuskegee.

One optimistic sign is that after the National Marrow Donor Program
launched a recruitment campaign in 1993, the Black match rate almost
doubled, rising from 22 percent to 42 percent in 1996.

“Were moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.” Pinderhughes said.

— Paul Ruffins

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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