A Closer Look at Racist Conspiracies

Three-dimensional model of an HIV virus. (Image credit: 3DScience.com)

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama spent much of the last week distancing himself from controversial comments made by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In several of his fiery sermons, Wright denounced racism in America and said that on September 11, 2001, God had not blessed but instead damned America. (The Reverend made an interesting point: If God has in fact blessed America — as countless bumper stickers across the country proclaim — why would an all-powerful, benevolent God allow such devastation?)

Obama used the furor over Wright’s comments as an opportunity to make a speech about race relations. But Wright went beyond denouncing racism into full-fledged conspiracy theories, claiming that AIDS was intentionally created by the U.S. government to kill blacks. He said, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

Racist conspiracy theories

Obama’s pastor is hardly the only person voicing such conspiracy theories. Among other prominent promoters:

* In 1991, Bill Cosby told The New York Post that AIDS “was started by human beings to get after certain people they don't like."

* Spike Lee told Rolling Stone in 1992, "I'm convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease… [But] they never realized it couldn't just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out.”

* In a 1998 interview in Rolling Stone, Will Smith said that he “felt that AIDS was created as a result of biological warfare testing. … Someone was messing around in a laboratory, trying to find biological weapons, and created AIDS.”

Many folk tales and urban legends have strong xenophobic or racist themes. For example, in the early 1990s, rumors circulated in black communities that the popular soft drink Tropical Fantasy was secretly bottled by the Ku Klux Klan and had an ingredient that could sterilize African-American men.

A grain of truth

It’s not surprising that racist conspiracy theories linger, and there is sometimes a grain of truth to them. After all, racism (like conspiracy) is often only expressed behind closed doors. And while the specific stories may be false, the underlying premise may be valid.

For example, the idea that the U.S. government has lied about developing biological weapons is not a conspiracy theory; it is a proven fact. In 2001, following the anthrax scare and investigations by the The Washington Post and The New York Times, the Bush administration admitted that it had been secretly developing anthrax for years, despite public denials and signing an international treaty prohibiting it.

And many blacks — especially those of Rev. Wright’s generation — are well aware of shameful events like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which hundreds of poor, illiterate black men were denied treatment for syphilis by government agencies in a medical study that spanned decades.

Among a population as traditionally oppressed as the black community, real and imagined perceived threats mix freely, and suspicions are deeply ingrained. Factual or not, the beliefs that Rev. Wright expressed are more mainstream than most people realize and must be taken seriously in discussions about race relations.

Benjamin Radford is a writer, investigator, and filmmaker. He wrote about urban legends and the media in his book "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.