1/26/2005

Ignorance and AIDS

Yes, ignorance perpetuates the spread of AIDS. This is a truism accepted by all reasonable people. But, that's not exactly the type of ignorance I'm talking about.

More than 20 years after the AIDS epidemic arrived in the United States, a significant proportion of African Americans embrace the theory that government scientists created the disease to control or wipe out their communities, according to a study released today by Rand Corp. and Oregon State University.

That belief markedly hurts efforts to prevent the spread of the disease among black Americans, the study's authors and activists said. African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census Bureau figures, yet they account for 50 percent of new HIV infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly half of the 500 African Americans surveyed said that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is man-made. The study, which was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, appears in the Feb. 1 edition of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.
Some of the other items in the study:
  • More than 25% believe that AIDS was produced in a government lab.
  • 12% believe that it was created and spread by the CIA.
  • More than half believe that there is a cure for AIDS, but it is being withheld from the poor.
  • 15% said that AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks.
This might seem like an aberration, but there is a segment of the black community that appears willing to believe even the most ludicrous conspiracy theories. One need only look to the Tropical Fantasy scandal in New York in 1991 to see further evidence of it.
Tropical Fantasy was brought onto the market in September 1990 by Brooklyn Bottling, a small family-owned soft drink manufacturer established in 1937, that was in 1990 only just getting by on its line of seltzers. Fantasy's comparably low price (49¢ per 20-ounce bottle versus Coke and Pepsi's 80¢ price tag for a 16-ouncer) led to a stunning initial success, and overnight a moribund firm became a bottler now with per-month sales of $2 million plus.

In April 1991 rumors began circulating in black neighborhoods that the beverage was laced with a secret ingredient that would cause sterility in black men, and that the Ku Klux Klan were the actual bottlers.

Sales of the beverage plummeted by 70%.
When one asks the indelicate question of why African-Americans seem so eager to believe these tales, the answer is often that it's a response to slavery, or the Tuskegee syphilis study, or racism in general. But that doesn't address the question of why an individual, presumably a person who's reasonably intelligent, would choose to believe something as patently ridiculous as the notion that America is trying to kill blacks with the AIDS virus.

It's a facet of human nature that if we believe something to be true, we tend to view the world around us as supporting that viewpoint; if someone believes that all white people are out to get him, hearing a story about a fruit drink that will make him sterile sounds plausible. The problem is not just his willingness to believe a conspiracy theory, but also the underlying view of the world that is coloring his perception.

That underlying view is perpetuated from without and within. Yes, racism is real. Yes, the syphilis study was real. But Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, says that "holding on to [the syphilis study] is killing us." Wilson calls these conspiracy theories a "bogeyman" that gives people an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. Past discrimination, he says, is no longer an excuse for embracing conspiracies that allow HIV to fester.

It's a shame that Wilson's message doesn't play as well as stories about AIDS and the CIA.