News & Politics

Chasing AIDS Conspiracies

AIDS activists blame loose and irresponsible talk about AIDS as a reason many blacks resist pleas to get tested and treated.
AIDS activists were livid at the findings of a recently released RAND study that found that huge numbers of blacks still believe that the AIDS epidemic in black communities is a genocidal plot to wipe out blacks. The conspirators are, take your pick: secret government labs, the CIA, diabolical scientists and doctors, international health agencies or unnamed forces. The RAND study conducted in conjunction with Oregon State University appeared in the Feb. 1 edition of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. It's the most extensive probe yet of AIDS conspiracy theories among blacks.

AIDS activists blame loose and irresponsible talk about AIDS as a reason many blacks resist pleas to get tested and treated, fail to consistently use condoms, and also fail to back AIDS prevention and education programs. That failure has had devastating consequences. Blacks account for more than half of the new AIDS and HIV cases in America. Among black women and young persons, the figures are even more horrific. According to government reports, in 2003, blacks aged 18-to-24 made up four out of five new AIDS cases. Black women made up nearly 3 out of four of new AIDS cases.

Though the RAND study is the most extensive study yet to document AIDS conspiracy notions among blacks, the study did not answer why, despite all scientific and medical evidence to the contrary, this dangerous and deadly racial paranoia is still rampant among so many blacks. Contrary to what many AIDS activists say, this is not solely a cop-out by them to evade personal responsibility for profligate sexual practices or to reject AIDS education programs.

The conspiracy bug has long bit many Americans. There are packs of groups that span a political spectrum of extreme rightists, Aryan Nation racists, Millennium Christian fundamentalists, leftist radicals, and fraternal lodges and societies. Their internet sites bristle with purported official documents that detail and expose these alleged plots. These groups and thousands of individuals believe that government, corporate, or international Zionist groups busily hatch secret plots, and concoct hidden plans to wreak havoc on their lives. Hollywood and the TV industry have also horned in on the conspiracy act. They churn out countless movies and TV shows in which shadowy, government groups topple foreign governments, assassinate government leaders, and brainwash operatives to do dirty deeds.

The conspiracy bug bit many blacks especially hard beginning in the 1960s. They were convinced that murky government agencies flooded the ghettoes with drugs, alcohol, gangs, and guns to sow division and disunity among black organizations, eliminate militant black leaders, jail black politicians and quash black activism. Their conspiracy fantasies and paranoia was fueled by well-documented spying by Army Intelligence, the Justice Department and the FBI on the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, the NAACP and other black groups, the Tuskegee experiment that stretched from 1932 into the 1970s in which federal officials knowingly withheld curative medical treatment to black men in Alabama infected with syphilis, and the corruption probes that targeted black elected officials in the 1980s.

The jewel in the conspiracy theory crown was the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. The claim was that King's convicted killer, James Earl Ray was a Lee Harvey Oswald-type patsy and that government spy agencies – most notably the FBI – orchestrated King's murder. In 1997, the King family jumped on the conspiracy bandwagon and demanded that Ray get a new trial presumably to ferret out the racist or government conspirators behind his murder. There has never been any solid proof that the FBI or other government agents killed King. Yet the ferocity of the FBI's secret war against King, and the many questions the FBI probe into his assassination left unanswered created enough of a wedge for many blacks to believe and to continue to shout conspiracy even after Ray's death in 1998. The AIDS conspiracy theories are hardly new either. The conspiracy rumblings began almost from the moment that AIDS began to sledgehammer black communities in the 1980s. Many blacks fingered the same list of usual suspects then as the Rand study documents that they finger today.

While government agencies in America have occasionally played fast and loose with the law and even the rules of democracy, and have spied on and harassed black leaders and groups, there has never been any evidence of any organized government plan to commit genocide against blacks. Still, the fervent belief that there is such a plan is just enough to make many blacks panic, circle the wagons and see hidden plots against them everywhere.

If, as AIDS activists claim, and the RAND study at least inferentially seems to confirm, reckless conspiracy theories about the AIDS plague among blacks are a cause of needless deaths and suffering within black communities, black leaders must speak out loudly against them. It's not a matter of racial one-upmanship. It's a matter of saving lives.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black(Middle Passage Press).
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