Thursday, August 11, 2005

Why the Conspiracy?

N.S.T. points me to this story on Black perceptions of the AIDS virus. The findings are disturbing:
More than one-quarter [of surveyed Blacks] said they believed that AIDS was produced in a government laboratory, and 12 percent believed it was created and spread by the CIA.

A slight majority [53.4%] said they believe that a cure for AIDS is being withheld from the poor. Forty-four percent said people who take the new medicines for HIV are government guinea pigs, and 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against black people.

At the same time, 75 percent said they believe medical and public health agencies are working to stop the spread of AIDS in black communities. But the responses, which varied only slightly by age, gender, education and income level, alarmed the researchers.

First things first--let's note what this doesn't show. It doesn't show that "blacks are delusional about AIDS." The only negative statement in the poll that garnered a majority view was also the one that was arguably true--one could plausibly note that we a) have treatments for AIDS that b) aren't making it to poor communities. We can debate about causes, problems, and extents, but the point at least is debatable. Aside from that, all of the questions fell short of a majority, and the statement with the most support was that Blacks thought medical and health communities are trying to stop the spread of AIDS.

Second, I was distressed by the rhetoric the reporter used to frame the issue. The article was a classic case of he-said/she-said journalism. As such, it presents two competing views that nominally are opposites. But I think the views are distorted and, if framed properly, could be perfectly compatible. The author writes:
The findings were also no surprise to Na'im Akbar, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in African American behavior.

"This is not a bunch of crazy people running around saying they're out to get us," Akbar said. The belief "comes from the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation."

Akbar cited the Tuskegee experiment conducted by the federal government between 1932 and 1972. In it, scientists told black men they were being treated for syphilis but actually withheld treatment so they could study the course of the disease.

Today, he said, African Americans are more likely to live in communities near pollution sources, such as freeways and oil refineries, and far from health care centers. "There are a lot of indicators that our lives are not valued," Akbar said.

Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, said past discrimination is no longer an excuse for embracing conspiracies that allow HIV to fester.

"It's a huge barrier to HIV prevention in black communities," Wilson said. "There's an issue around conspiracy theory and urban myths. Thus we have an epidemic raging out of control, and African Americans are being disproportionately impacted in every single sense."

In a nutshell, then, the two "sides" are presented as "The belief 'com[ing] from the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation," versus "past discrimination is no longer an excuse for embracing conspiracies that allow HIV to fester."

But I don't the quote following the latter statement justifies the position it purports to uphold. All Mr. Wilson says is that the effect of the conspiracy theory is to harm efforts to stop AIDS' progress. He doesn't say that the longstanding abuse of Blacks in America doesn't "justify" their paranoia--even if in this case it is false.

Instead of being oppositional, I think these two statements can be read together as saying: "Centuries of racial subjugation have affected Blacks' entire way of seeing the world. Having been (and continuing to be) the victims of white exploitation for so long, they now see their hand in all problems facing the black community. In the context of the AIDS virus, this is having drastic and intolerable negative consequences that are preventing health workers from stopping the epidemic." Viewed this way, the question is "how can we convince Blacks of our goodwill--given that our past history makes us less than trustworthy partners?" This, in turn, reifies what Crits have been saying all along--that in order to address the problems plaguing Black society, one has to deal with racism first. We can't stop AIDS when the entire Black community is in a state of psychic shock over centuries of hate. Telling them to "just trust us" is akin to telling a rape victim who has been raped again by her last 20 doctors to trust this next one. Even assuming that this doctor really does have good intentions, the strategy isn't likely to work. The problem falls on our end to rebuild trust within racial communities that is desperately needed and sorely lacking.


Anonymous said...

"Forty-four percent said people who take the new medicines for HIV are government guinea pigs."

Uh, I'm surprised the numbers aren't higher. Given such pleasantries as finding out that drugs we've required HIV+ people to take end up making the problem worse (AZT comes to mind as one of the worst ones), and even better, the use of experimental drugs on children who were refused the right to avoid treatment:

To take your metaphor, we're still leading the black community from one rapist doctor to the next. Screw the long-term cultural effects, like try fixing the ones we're continuing to do today!

Isaac said...

But polls always turn up substantial portions of Americans believing in totally crazy shit. So I wonder what percentage of Americans believe other odd things about AIDS. Perhaps this isn't quite the big deal it's being made into.