Conspiracy Theories Can Often Ring True

Conspiracy Theories Can Often Ring True:

History Feeds Blacks' Mistrust


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

opinion polls.

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

be stopped."

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

of drugs.

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