Conspiracy theory, urban legend, and rumor have played an important role in African American culture from its beginnings. Recent decades have seen a spate of conspiracy theories emerge from the African American community concerning everything from the origin of AIDS to supposedly racist clothes designers and restaurant owners. Whatever the possible validity of these stories, these conspiracy theories have served as a way of voicing frustration and suspicion in an increasingly complex social world, one in which racism may not be condoned by the government, but is still acutely felt by many in the black community. But such stories are not products solely of their time; they emerge out of a tradition that began with the first contact between Africans and Europeans.
As folklorist Patricia Turner notes in her book I Heard It through the Grapevine, a study of the role of rumor and legend in the African American community, the telling of conspiracy-minded stories has been a central way for blacks (and whites) to understand their circumstances. At the outset of the slave trade, for example, Africans who were taken aboard slave ships had difficulty comprehending both their immediate situation and their captors’ intentions. The one explanation they found plausible was that these strange-looking white men were cannibals searching for food. Likewise, the Europeans presumed that all Africans must be cannibals, given their seemingly primitive nature.
From this basis was born a long line of anecdotes, rumors, and beliefs (many of them well founded) among African Americans about the animosity that at least some whites bore toward them, and their powerlessness in the social, economic, and political systems in which they found themselves. In particular, a theme that emerges from the earliest rumors about European cannibalism and continues in recent years through the conspiracy theories about the spread of crack cocaine is the understanding that the black (usually male) body is a site of contention between blacks and whites.
Historical Context for Conspiracy Theories
The events of U.S. history have provided a context in which such beliefs make sense: the institution of chattel slavery itself, in which the black body was the property of a white owner and could be worked and physically punished until it gave out; lynchings that became nearly common events in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (often sparked by a suspicion that a black male had had, or intended to have, sexual relations with a white woman); the stories emerging from World War II of black soldiers being given particularly dangerous assignments more regularly than their white counterparts; the Tuskegee experiments in which black males were intentionally infected with syphilis; the willingness of law enforcement officers in the South not only to deny rights to blacks, but also to attack demonstrators with fire hoses and dogs during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; the disproportionate number of poor blacks sent to fight in Vietnam; and the ongoing incidents of police violence against blacks, particularly in the inner cities. In these cases, it isn’t simply that blacks are the victims of racism, but that this racism fuels institutionalized physical attacks against individual African Americans, attacks that often end in death. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s, as well as the Rodney King beating in 1991, have served as representative examples of the violence that may befall blacks who seem to defy or challenge the system.
A Century of Conspiracies The U.S. Civil War and the end of chattel slavery brought increased interaction among African Americans and whites, and with it an increasing number of conspiracy theories among both groups. In fact, one of the most persistent conspiracy theories to circulate in the African American community emerged at the time of emancipation. The threat of possible black ownership of southern land was used by the Confederacy to rally support for its cause among whites. Belief in this possibility spread so widely that by the time the war ended, many former slaves themselves were convinced that the federal government would supply them with a parcel of land. The promise of “40 acres and a mule” to each freed slave was never actually made, but the belief that the government both made and broke this promise became so entrenched in African American culture that it continues to be cited as evidence of the systematic betrayal of African Americans by the U.S. government.
With the abolition of slavery came greater mobility and opportunities for African Americans. Yet, much of the underlying racism and animosity that had allowed slavery to exist in the first place remained. African Americans often found themselves in communities that did not welcome them. Inevitably, racial tensions arose from the fear, suspicion, and animosity felt by both blacks and whites in the postslavery United States.
The migration of many southern blacks during the late 1800s and early 1900s to the large urban areas of the North seems to have sparked a number of incidents in which conspiracy theory and racially motivated violence fueled each other. The riots of East St. Louis, Missouri (1917), and Chicago, Illinois (1919), were both precipitated in part by rumors of racial violence. In St. Louis, a meeting of white laborers concerned about losing their jobs to African Americans led to violence when rumors circulated that a black man had recently killed or assaulted whites (the rumors ranged from an accidental shooting of a white man to the murder of two white girls). A month of sporadic violence followed, with both blacks and whites believing that the other group was planning a wholesale massacre. When the violence erupted into a full-scale race riot, a large number of blacks were killed and mutilated by white mobs. The exact number of fatalities was itself the subject of conspiracy theories: many blacks felt that the official death toll was kept low to minimize the savagery of white violence, while some whites felt blacks were trying to inflate the list of fatalities by claiming that people who had fled the city had been killed and disposed of.
Similar rumors of violence sparked a race riot in Chicago in 1919. After weeks of growing racial tension and suspicion, violence erupted when a black boy drowned at a segregated beach when he accidentally drifted into the white swimming area. Some white bathers threw stones to drive him away, and although there was no evidence that any of these hit the boy, the rumor circulated among African Americans at the scene that the boy had been killed by rock-throwing whites while the police looked on. Several days of violence followed.
Race riots also emerged in Detroit, Michigan, in 1943, as well as Harlem, New York, in 1935 and 1943. Again, rumors of assault, rape, or murder of a member of one group by individuals of the other race served as the spark for the violence. And again, the rumors were found to be either baseless, or at least exaggerated.
These cases of rumors precipitating violence suggest that conspiracy theories have provided a way of giving shape and specificity to free-floating racial anxieties within local communities. However, these rumors also contributed to conspiracy theory becoming a larger theme in African American political discourse. As Turner points out in her work, even blacks who did not have any specific knowledge of the riots in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, or other similar events still were familiar with the themes expressed in the rumors that emerged from them: that the lives and bodies of blacks were not valued by whites and that violence by whites against blacks was seen as acceptable by society.
From early in the twentieth century, various African American leaders and groups have used conspiracy theories to explain the larger subjection of blacks in U.S. society. Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan, among many others, have suggested that the social, political, and economic struggles facing blacks were the result of concerted efforts by the white majority to keep them from their rightful place in society. Such theories became accepted tenets of more militant groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.
Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow Coalition, speaks at a United for AIDS Action demonstration in New York City. Fifty thousand people turned out for the 1992 event in Times Square.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of conspiracy theories emerged from the African American community that suggested specific ways in which the racism of U.S. society at large was still affecting blacks. One genre of theory involved supposed ties between companies that catered to the black community and racist organizations, particularly the Ku Klux Klan. One conspiracy theory suggested that the Troop Sport clothing company, a manufacturer of sportswear that was popular in urban areas, was owned and run by the KKK. Versions of this theory suggested that tags or messages hidden on or in the clothing contained racist threats and slurs. The shoe manufacturer Reebok was also alleged to have racist ties. It was suggested that the producer of popular athletic shoes was owned or financially tied to the white government of South Africa and supporters of apartheid.
A related theory emerged in 1991, claiming that Liz Claiborne, the founder of the clothing company of the same name, had appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and made racist comments. She was alleged to have suggested that she did not make clothes for black women because they could not wear the same sizes as white women and that she simply did not like the idea of making clothes for blacks. Although Liz Claiborne had never appeared on Winfrey’s show (and was no longer associated with the clothing company at the time of the rumor’s appearance), the allegations were repeated as fact by many, including film director Spike Lee, who called for a boycott of Liz Clai-borne clothing by African American women. A nearly identical theory surfaced a few years later, replacing Liz Claiborne with Tommy Hilfiger
A second genre of conspiracy theory also suggested links between businesses catering to the black community and racists, but added the assertion that these companies were not simply exploiting African Americans economically but also were causing them physical harm. These included the longstanding urban legend that Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants served rat meat to some customers. In this case, the allegation was that “Kentucky Fried Rat” was intentionally served to black customers.
Another fried chicken restaurant chain, Church’s Fried Chicken, also became the subject of a conspiracy theory. It was suggested that the company (whose franchises were located primarily in urban areas and had a sizable black customer base) was owned by racist whites who added an ingredient to the chicken that would cause black men to become sterile. A parallel theory held that the makers of Tropical Fantasy, a low-cost soft drink marketed principally in largely black urban areas, was owned by the KKK and added an ingredient to its product that would sterilize or cause impotence in black men. Yet another rumor suggested that Kool cigarettes contained an additive that caused sterility in black men.
Although no evidence emerged to confirm these rumors, they remained popular beliefs among many African Americans. Many cited the Tuskegee experiments on black men as evidence that attacks on African American males, particularly in ways that directly affected their reproductive capacity, were a way in which whites attempted to limit or destroy the African American population.
The Government as Enemy
While the conspiracy theories involving private companies suggested ties between them and overtly racist organizations such as the KKK, other theories asserted that the U.S. government itself had genocidal ambitions against blacks. Such theories hark back to the time of institutionalized slavery when the government allowed African Americans to be bought and sold, as well as the “broken promise” of 40 acres and a mule. Contemporary visions of the government as the enemy of African Americans include the theory that the murders of several African American boys and young men in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981 were not the work of Wayne Williams, the black man accused and eventually convicted of the murders. These crimes were believed to have been part of a conspiracy planned by the Center for Disease Control, the FBI, and/or the CIA to collect interferon from the genitalia of black males for use in medical experiments (a theory that was deemed plausible by comedian/activist Dick Gregory and writer James Baldwin).
Other government-centered conspiracy legends include the allegations that poor black women who visit healthcare centers are routinely sterilized or given long-term birth-control implants without their knowledge, as a means of controlling the black population. A more popular belief is that the AIDS virus is part of a government plan to target the inner cities with a deadly disease to limit their populations. The most widely circulated of such theories is the charge that drugs (crack cocaine in particular) were purposely introduced to inner-city communities by government agencies as a means to destroy the black community.
Variations of each of these conspiracy theories suggest a wide range of government culpability. Those suggesting a weak link between the federal government and conspiracies against African Americans suggest that the government, while not actually creating the problem (e.g., introducing the HIV virus or crack cocaine into the black community as biological weapons), has willingly allowed these crises to run their course without attempting to solve the problem. As long as these phenomena are primarily affecting black Americans, the reasoning goes, the government is content to practice a type of malevolent neglect.
Versions of these theories that suggest the strongest possible connection between the government and attacks against African Americans hold that not only are such acts a willful attempt at genocide, but that government agencies are actually demonic forces of supernatural evil. One such theory alleged that a numerological analysis of the name “Ronald Wilson Reagan” proves that the president was an agent of the Antichrist. Since each of his three names contains six letters (i.e., “666″), the president was linked to the mark of the beast.
Another genre of conspiracy theory involving oppression of African Americans by the government suggests that the government often attacks the black community indirectly through discrediting high-profile leaders or groups. Again, such theories have historical precedents. It is now known that the FBI routinely carried out surveillance on civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and actively attempted to destabilize the Black Panthers. Such historical realities lend credence to suggestions that highly visible African Americans are subjected to disinformation campaigns conducted by largely white government agencies. When Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry was arrested in a drug-related sting operation, it was suggested that he had been “set up” by whites who wanted to embarrass and harass influential African Americans.
Similar allegations surrounded the conviction of boxer Mike Tyson for rape.
During the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King, a widely circulated rumor suggested that the Los Angeles police were allowing the riots to continue in order to make the black community look bad. Perhaps the best-known example of this genre of conspiracy theory is that of the arrest and trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife. Polls showed that many blacks believed the former football star had been framed by racist members of the Los Angeles Police Department.
A recurring theme in African American conspiracy theories is the physicality of the attacks they describe. The black body itself is portrayed as the site of struggle. The attack may involve the clothes that cover the body (e.g., the Troop Sport, Reebok, and Liz Claiborne theories), or may attack the body itself (e.g., the Church’s Fried Chicken and Tropical Fantasy theories). The physical attacks range from indirect attempts at limiting the black population (as with the theories involving sterilization) to overt murder and genocide (as in the explanation for the Atlanta child murders and some versions of the AIDS-as-biological-weapon theory).
The theories involving crack cocaine and other drugs in some ways combine these various motifs. The drug trade economically exploits poor blacks. It also leads to their death in many cases (through overdoses, drug-related crime, etc.). Finally, it provides an excuse for institutional control of the black body, such as the incarceration of large numbers of African Americans (mostly young males) and mandatory drug tests for inner-city mothers as a prerequisite for prenatal care.
The Popularity and Ramifications of Conspiracy Theory
Surveys suggest that conspiracy theories of one sort or another are taken seriously by a significant percentage of the African American population. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference conducted a survey in 1991 in which 35 percent of the respondents believed that AIDS was a form of genocide, and another 30 percent said they were not sure. A poll done by the New York Times and WCBS-TV found that 77 percent of the black respondents felt that there was at least some truth to the allegation that the government targeted black elected officials for investigations as a way to discredit them. The same poll showed that 70 percent of black respondents believed the government intentionally allowed drugs into urban, largely black neighborhoods as a way of harming those who lived there.
The ramifications of this popularity of conspiracy theories among many African Americans are a point of debate among those who have studied the phenomenon. For some, the distortions and untruths they see at the heart of many such theories are stumbling blocks to true social and political progress. Conspiracy theories undermine the sense of empowerment and responsibility necessary to solve the actual problems. Occasionally, such as in the case of AIDS, the suspicion and misinformation communicated in conspiracy theories can have disastrous effects on both individuals and the larger community.
Others argue that conspiracy theory is a cultural practice that has played an important role in the continuing struggle of African Americans to understand their place in a society that is often hostile. Racism, particularly in its institutionalized forms, has been a conspiracy of sorts that has targeted people of African descent in America from the earliest days of colonial settlement.
Specific conspiracy theories may or may not be supported by the evidence, but even those that are demonstrably false are mistaken only in their particulars. They accurately describe the situation many blacks find themselves in and provide valuable social knowledge by making explicit (even if in a metaphorical manner) the very real forces of racism that must be recognized and overcome in order to succeed in society.