History Feeds Blacks' Mistrust
BY MICHAEL A. FLETCHER
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 4 1996; Page A01
The Washington Post
When reports surfaced recently implying the CIA was behind the flood
of cocaine into black neighborhoods of Los Angeles that ignited the
1980s crack epidemic, Donald Griffin was not surprised.
"It's something that has been happening for a long time," said Griffin,
an African American who owns two barber shops in Baltimore. "I don't
think it's anything new."
Neither the shortage of factual substantiation for the reports, published
in August by the San Jose Mercury News, nor denials by government
officials have had an impact on Griffin. In the African American
community the allegations have hit a nerve, highlighting an inclination,
born of bitter history and captured in polls, to accept as fact unsubstantiated
reports or rumors about conspiracies targeting blacks.
"Over generations there has been a repeated demonstration that there
is a basis in the black community for a feeling of attack, a feeling
of harassment," said Yvonne Scruggs, executive director of the Washington-
based Black Leadership Forum.
Significant numbers of African Americans, for instance, believe the
government deliberately makes drugs easily available in their communities,
introduced the AIDS epidemic to harm blacks and unfairly targets
black elected officials for criminal prosecution, according to public
Many blacks have stopped buying certain soft drinks and fast foods
after hearing rumors, fully believed by some, that the foods and
beverages contained secret ingredients designed to sterilize black
Some black leaders have fed these fears. Nation of Islam leader Louis
Farrakhan, for instance, has long blamed the drug epidemic on the
government and promoted the theory that AIDS is part of a government
Conspiracy fears involving various arms of the federal government
crop up all across America, from far-right militia groups to leftist
fringe groups. And polls have shown large numbers of people view
the federal government as a threat to their rights and freedoms.
But these suspicions run much deeper among blacks, for whom, analysts
say, the widespread distrust of the government dates to the legal
sanctioning of slavery and has been kept alive by more than a few
shreds of evidence.
Among the cases cited most frequently to explain those fears are
disclosures that the FBI spied on civil rights leaders, including
Martin Luther King Jr., and infiltrated black militant groups in
the 1960s in an effort to foment division. For years, many southern
police departments were suspected of having ties to the Ku Klux Klan,
a view sharpened by the cross burnings and other racist attacks on
blacks during the civil rights era that often went unpunished.
Many African Americans in the District point to the 1990 FBI sting
that caught Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack cocaine given to him
by a former lover as an example of authorities going too far to bring
down a black elected official.
Also, black leaders and academics cite the infamous Tuskegee experiment
that ran for 40 years until 1972 and followed the progress of syphilis
in 399 mostly uneducated black men who were left untreated--contrary
to their belief--so that government researchers could track the
natural course of the disease.
"It is not at all astonishing that people feel this way. It is just
a continuation of what people have observed through the years," said
Patricia A. Turner, a professor at the University of California-Davis
and author of a book about rumor in African American culture.
Often, the history of victimization of black people allows myth -
- and, at times, outright paranoia--to flourish.
Many African Americans, for instance, believe that Charles Drew,
the black Washington physician whose pioneering work with blood plasma
saved thousands of lives, died after a car accident in 1950 because
he was denied treatment at a whites-only hospital. But Drew actually
died as white surgeons who happened to recognize him worked to save
his life, according to a Drew biography. For African Americans, though,
the myth fits a larger historical reality: that a man who had benefited
medicine for all races died because of anti-black attitudes.
Sales of Tropical Fantasy, a soda produced by a firm that employs
a large percentage of minorities in a depressed section of Brooklyn,
N.Y., plummeted several years ago after mysterious leaflets appeared
in black neighborhoods warning that the beverage was manufactured
by the Ku Klux Klan and contained stimulants to sterilize black men.
Investigations found the claims to be as preposterous as they appeared.
But sales recovered only after an extensive public relations campaign
that included then-New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, who is black,
drinking a bottle of the soda for television news cameras. Similar
unfounded rumors about Klan involvement periodically have plagued
the Church's Fried Chicken chain and Snapple soft drinks.
Despite the long history of drug and other rumors in black communities,
nothing has provoked such widespread interest and outrage as the
Mercury News series about cocaine sales and the CIA. It has been
seized upon by black leaders, provided a constant topic for black
radio talk shows and been ballyhooed in local black newspapers across
the country. The newspaper sent the stories out to African American
opinion-makers and has put the articles on its Internet web site,
where they have been widely read.
While the stories only implied a CIA link, they did echo credible
evidence examined, but never fully resolved, by a Senate committee
in the late 1980s of drug dealing by CIA-backed rebels seeking to
overthrow the former leftist government of Nicaragua. The notion
that the government--or some powerful, unseen hand--is involved
in drugs fits the daily reality of many African Americans. Griffin,
for instance, said that drugs are plentiful in neighborhoods that
often are devoid of supermarkets and banks, and he has no doubt the
government could do something about that if it wanted to.
"If you are going to advocate `say no to drugs,' then do something
about it," he said. ". . . If they put their mind to it, it could
Whispers of a government conspiracy to dump drugs in black neighborhoods
go back at least to the Vietnam War years. Then, the rumor was that
heroin was promoted to squelch rising black militancy across the
nation. No proof was ever presented, but that hardly mattered.
"I think these things are believed for a couple of reasons," said
Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of politics and public affairs
at Princeton University. "One, there is some real evidence of some
of them. . . . Also, these things are taken to be illustrations of
racism that blacks know to be true, but find it hard demonstrating."
The latest reports have been denied by the director of the CIA, who
said the agency and its operatives had nothing to do with the spread
of crack. He has asked the agency's independent inspector general
to investigate the matter. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and
Attorney General Janet Reno also have promised investigations.
But the denials have not cooled the furor over the stories, which
also is being fanned by seasoned conspiracy theorists, from political
extremist Lyndon LaRouche to activist Dick Gregory.
Gregory--who has blamed the King assassination on a tangled government
conspiracy and attributed the string of black child murders that
baffled Atlanta authorities before a black record promoter was arrested
in 1981 to secret federal interferon experiments--has been arrested
in protests at the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
And Gregory said that is only beginning. "We're talking about demonstrations
across this country," he said at a recent news conference. "Nothing
in the history of this planet is as vile as what we're about to uncover.
As bad as slavery was, white folks never accused us of jumping on
the boat." But, he said, black people have been blamed for the scourge
But deep concern over the CIA drug allegations is coming from more
circumspect quarters as well.
Jesse L. Jackson is one of many African American leaders who have
called for an investigation of the allegations raised in the Mercury
News articles: "We must leave no stone unturned to either end the
rumor or capture the culprits."
He said the idea that the CIA may have abetted drug dealing in the
black community is "painful but believable." He said both the historical
and "circumstantial" evidence leave him no other choice.
Joe Madison, an NAACP national board member, has dedicated his Washington
talk show to the issue and has held news conferences to bring the
issue into the national spotlight. He also has been arrested in protests
staged in reaction to the reports.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), a former federal and state prosecutor,
fired off a series of letters to congressional leaders and fellow
mayors asking for support in pressing for a thorough congressional
As is the case in many largely poor, black communities, Baltimore
has been hard hit by drugs: An estimated one out of 14 residents
in the city is an addict and some 56 percent of the city's young
black males are in jail, named in warrants or on probation or parole
-- mostly as a result of drug-related charges.
Civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, attending one of Madison's news
conferences, also demanded an investigation. "We have never stopped
believing for a moment that there was not some government complicity
in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.," he said. "This is
a continuation of government involvement in dastardly deeds."
Even if a major investigation into the allegations is done, it is
unlikely to quell the certainty among many African Americans that
the government played a role in bringing the crack epidemic to black
communities. "Who in the world in the CIA organization is going to
stand up and testify that this is true?" Griffin said. "I think it's
a joke. I think the government will very well try to cover up the