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Conspiracy theories and Blacks

Extract from Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From by Daniel Pipes. Buy the book at Amazon.

Among the politically disaffected, the black community and the hard Right are most overtly conspiracy theory-minded. Both dislike the existing order and offer radical ideas about changing it; both resort to an outlook that depends heavily on the existence of powerful forces engaged in plots.

Conspiracy theories may well be most prevalent in black America. A columnist calls these "the life blood of the African-American community," and a clinical psychologist notes that there is "probably no conspiracy involving African-Americans that was too far-fetched, too fantastic, or too convoluted." She finds four recurring themes, all centered on the U.S. government: it uses blacks as guinea pigs, imposes bad habits on them, targets their leaders, and decimates their population.

But the sense of being surrounded by evildoers shows up in many ways, ranging from the petty to the cosmic, and does not always focus on the government. In a minor but indicative example, a new and inexpensive drink named Tropical Fantasy appeared throughout the northeastern United States in September 1990 and sold extremely well in low-income neighborhoods during the next half year. The fact that most of its Brooklyn, New York, employees were black made the beverage the more appealing.

But anonymous leaflets turned up in black areas in early 1991, warning that the soft drink was manufactured by the Ku Klux Klan and contained "stimulants to sterilize the black man." Although journalistic and police investigations found this accusation to be completely fraudulent, it struck a chord among consumers, and sales plummeted by 70 percent. Other products, including Kool and Uptown cigarettes, Troop Sport clothing, Church's Fried Chicken, and Snapple soft drinks, suffered from similar slanders about the KKK and causing impotence, and they too went into a commercial tailspin.

On a larger scale, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., continue to arouse suspicions among blacks. Nation of Islam leaders point to the FBI's not protecting Malcolm X; in King's case, they claim the U.S. government "set up his death." Joseph Lowery, another black leader, agrees: "We have never stopped believing for a moment that there was not some government complicity in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr."

The activist Dick Gregory, a comedian who long ago gave up laughs for conspiracy theories, also blames King's death on a government plot, as he does the mysterious murder of twenty-eight blacks in Atlanta in 1979-81 (which he ascribes to government scientists' taking the tips of their penises to use in a serum for countering cancer).

But the two main conspiracy theories concern fears that the U.S. government takes steps to sabotage blacks and the cluster of accusations promoted by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.

AIDS and Drugs.

The disproportionate incidence of AIDS and drug use among blacks prompts prominent figures to endorse a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is behind these epidemics. The comedian Bill Cosby asserts that AIDS was "started by human beings to get after certain people they don't like." The movie director Spike Lee announced (in an advertisement for the Benetton clothing shops, of all places) that "AIDS is a government-engineered disease." On late-night television, rap singer Kool Moe Dee portrayed AIDS as a genocidal plot against blacks, with no dissent from host Arsenio Hall. A mass-circulation magazine for blacks ran as its cover story, "AIDS: Is It Genocide?" Steven Cokely, a well-known former Chicago municipal official, gave the plot an antisemitic twist, telling of Jewish doctors who injected black babies with AIDS as part of a plot to take over the world. Drugs and crime inspire similar fears. In the acclaimed 1991 movie about black life, Boyz 'N' the Hood, a character proffers a full-blown conspiracy theory about crack and guns being available to blacks because "they want us to kill each other off. What they couldn't do to us in slavery, they are making us do to ourselves."

With a black leadership falling over itself to endorse such ideas, it comes as little surprise that a 1990 poll showed 29 percent of black New Yorkers stating their belief in AIDS' being "deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people," and 60 percent thinking the government was "deliberately" making drugs available to poor blacks.

These views set the stage for the sensational reception given "Dark Alliance," a three-part series published in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996. The author, Gary Webb, strongly implied that the Central Intelligence Agency knew about drug dealing in Los Angeles by anticommunist Nicaraguans but did not stop them because it welcomed the funds they sent to the contras fighting in Nicaragua. Cocaine, Webb states in the first article, "was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the Central Intelligence Agency's army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices".

This drug network "opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles." The Nicaraguan traffickers, he also maintains, "met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A." This, the series suggested, made the government complicit in the spread of crack, a cocaine derivative.

The Mercury News drew this connection even more directly on the Internet. Its World Wide Web site showed the CIA insignia superimposed over a man smoking crack. In a talk-radio interview available on the Mercury News's state-of-the-art Web site, Gary Webb asserted that "the cocaine that was used to make the crack that flooded into L.A. in the early '80s came from the CIA's army."

In addition to reviews by the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the Los Angeles sheriff that found no evidence to support Webb's conspiracy theory, several investigative articles found his evidence lacking. The Washington Post determined that "available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras - or Nicaraguans in general - played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States."

The Los Angeles Times stated flatly that "The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA or any single drug ring." The New York Times found "scant proof" to support the allegations. These and other debunkings did force the Mercury News to backtrack somewhat; the editor insisted that "Dark Alliance" had only stated that individuals associated with the CIA sold cocaine that ended up on the streets of Los Angeles, not that the CIA approved of the sales. In addition, the CIA insignia disappeared from the World Wide Web site.

This reversal had little impact on black opinion, however, which widely accepted "Dark Alliance" as truth. Leaders immediately endorsed it. Jesse Jackson accused the government, through the CIA, of being "involved in subsidizing drugs." Dick Gregory got himself arrested at the CIA headquarters and proclaimed that "There is evidence inside those buildings that confirms that the CIA helped to destroy black folks. That's called genocide." Maxine Waters, South-Central Los Angeles's member of Congress, told a rally that "People in high places, knowing about it, winking, blinking, and in South Central Los Angeles, our children were dying."

Black journalists picked up the topic and ran with it. Derrick Z. Jackson wrote in his Boston Globe column: "the only conclusion is that Ronald Reagan said yes to crack and the destruction of black lives at home to fund the killing of commies abroad." Wilbert Tatum, editor of the Amsterdam News, found the thesis "entirely plausible." An editorial cartoon showed a car full of CIA agents driving in a black part of town, throwing packets of crack out of windows. The conspiracy theory even developed its own form of commerce, as Los Angeles vendors sold baseball caps reading "C.I.A. Crack Inforcement Agency."

The CIA allegations then provided the basis for yet more sweeping accusations. Kobie Kwasi Harris, chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at San Jose State University, discerned a larger pattern: "If America had a choice they would choose a disorganized, criminal black community over an organized, radical one." Barbara Boudreaux of the Los Angeles school board announced the existence of "a master plan to have mass genocide for every child born in the world, especially in Los Angeles and Compton."

Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Louis Farrakhan deserves close attention, having become not just the leading black conspiracy theorist but also America's most prominent antisemite. In part, Farrakhan reflects Nation of Islam theology, which understands the white race's very existence as a conspiracy directed at the elimination of blacks. Along these lines, Farrakhan's associates at the Black Holocaust Nationhood Conference that took place just before the Million Man March of October 1995 held whites responsible for 600 million black deaths over the past six thousand years.

Farrakhan's newspaper accuses whites of pursuing this goal through many avenues, foremost of which is AIDS, "a man-made disease designed to kill us all." (By "us," Farrakhan includes Africans: the U.S. government shipped a billion units of AIDS to Africa, he said, to annihilate that continent's entire population.) Other mechanisms include propaganda about black inferiority, substandard education, long prison terms, and making guns, drugs, and junk food available.

Getting rid of black men through addiction, incarceration, or death also has the advantage of making black women conveniently available to white men, who then control them through a deadly combination of birth control, abortion, and welfare.

Farrakhan goes beyond the theology he inherited from his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, and displays an inclusive conspiracism of his own making. It began with the very death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975; Farrakhan rejected the official causes (heart failure and arteriosclerotic disease) and insisted that a conspiracy of family members, the U.S. government, and Sunni Arabs did him in. Farrakhan also focuses on Jews, a people the Nation of Islam had previously ignored, adopting many classic antisemitic themes.

Jews, he says, are responsible for capitalism and communism, the two world wars, financing Hitler, controlling the Federal Reserve Board and Hollywood, and causing the U.S. government to go into debt. They dominate U.S. politics ("all presidents since 1932 are controlled by the Jews") and media ("any newspaper that refused to acquiesce to controlled news was brought to its knees by withdrawing advertising. Failing this, the Jews stop the supply of news print and ink").

In all, "85 percent of the masses of the people of earth are victimized" by Jews. The Nation of Islam purveys the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antisemitic forgery, at its meetings and publishes its own literature of conspiratorial antisemitism.

Farrakhan also makes novel assertions about Jews. They carried out the transatlantic slave trade that he claims killed 100 million Africans. Jews owned three-quarters of all slaves, and they kept the slave system functioning. They inject the AIDS virus into black newborns and puncture a hole in the ozone layer.

In a particularly clever bit of revisionism, Farrakhan turns around the active and lasting Jewish participation in black civil rights efforts, claiming that it was self interested. By helping integrate blacks, he says, Jews managed to destroy the autonomous black economic institutions and took over the business for themselves. By encouraging blacks to work within the system, rather than confront it, Jews kept them from escaping the strictures of white supremacy. In all, Jewish "bloodsuckers" have successfully blocked black advancement.