“Bad Blood.” “The Big White Lie.” “American Apartheid.” “Two Nations.” “The Assassination of the Black Male Image.”
These books and dozens of others with similar themes cry out from the shelves of Eso Won, a black-oriented bookstore in southwest Los Angeles. They recall a shameful national legacy of racial injustice that many whites consider past, but most blacks see as a pattern that still rings true.
They tell of a people’s bondage, a constitution that once counted them as three-fifths human, and a chief justice of the United States who proclaimed that they had “no rights that a white man was bound to respect.” There are tales of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan and experiments in which blacks were used as guinea pigs.
It is this history that explains why allegations of government involvement in the Los Angeles crack cocaine trade have resonated so powerfully and with such credibility among African Americans.
To a degree that would surprise most white Americans, blacks are far more likely to see U.S. history as a series of government-sponsored efforts to harm, oppress or exterminate them.
“The preoccupation with the idea that we are being targeted doesn’t simply come out of a sense of paranoia,” said James Turner, executive director of Cornell University’s Africana Studies Center. “It’s something that is based on concrete experiences.”
The notion of conspiracy grows not merely from slavery, or the “separate but equal” court decisions of the 19th century, or the Jim Crow laws that followed, or the unsolved lynchings that filled Southern trees with what a Billie Holiday song called a “strange and bitter crop.”
It is rooted in the FBI’s covert spying on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the agency’s campaign to disrupt the Black Panthers, and a seemingly endless string of questionable police shootings that are rarely prosecuted. It flows, too, from the notorious Tuskegee, Ala., study by the U.S. Public Health Service beginning in the 1930s. In that experiment, scientists curious to monitor untreated syphilis studied nearly 400 poor black men with the disease, which the men described as “bad blood.” Although they had promised therapy, the scientists let the disease go unchecked for as long as 40 years.
The sense of conspiracy explains why, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the name Latasha Harlins was shouted out as often as Rodney King’s. Harlins was a teenager who the previous year had been fatally shot by a merchant who thought she was shoplifting. Although the merchant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a judge gave her probation with no jail time.
Understand this perspective of history, scholars say, and you will understand why 2,000 African Americans--many of them solidly middle class--assembled last month at a Los Angeles rally to decry alleged Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the crack market, a controversy provoked by a series of San Jose Mercury News articles.
The fact that the Mercury News did not uncover any direct link between CIA officers and crack trafficking in the United States has not diminished the suspicion--particularly since crack hit first, and hardest, in black neighborhoods.
Suspicion of government transcends race. America is, after all, a nation that was founded by groups that both feared and distrusted authority. Right-wing talk radio shows in recent years have been peppered by callers warning of plots by the United Nations to control Americans and of attempts by the government to target citizen militias.
Classically, historians say, the powerless in society have always suspected that grand forces control their lives. Those with power typically give greater credence to the role of individuals in shaping both history and one’s own destiny.
The late historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1952 how “the paranoid style in American politics” had shaped American society from its earliest days. Conspiracies, he wrote, were one of the driving forces behind colonial independence.
“Notions about an all-embracing conspiracy on the part of Jesuits or Freemasons, international capitalists, international Jews or communists are familiar phenomena in many countries throughout modern history,” he wrote.
A Vulnerability to Conspiracy Theories?
Black communities--freighted with a history of oppression, reeling from high rates of poverty and facing unprecedented cutbacks in federal social programs--are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories, scholars say.
The widespread acceptance of the allegation that the government helped steer crack to South-Central Los Angeles “says something about the isolation and lack of inclusion that African Americans experience in this society,” said Florence Bonner, chairwoman of the sociology department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “There is a feeling of isolation and disassociation from those very institutions that are there to support and involve us.”
In her new book, “Race and Justice: Rodney King and O.J. Simpson in a House Divided,” black clinical psychologist Jewelle Taylor Gibbs devotes an entire chapter to conspiracies in the black community.
Taylor, a professor of social psychology at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, cites the FBI’s well-documented COINTELPRO operation of the ‘60s--which was an attempt to discredit some civil rights and radical groups--as an example of “real facts” that lend more credibility to conspiracy theories.
Thus, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was able to see the Rodney King beating by his officers as an “aberration"--an individual case. Blacks, by contrast, tended to view the beating not only as part of a pattern of police abuse, but also as a direct extension of Southern lynching.
And when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was trying to fend off liberal critics of both races, he invoked a historical metaphor so horrific that it neutralized his white foes and won him sympathy from some black opponents. He was a victim, Thomas declared, of “a high-tech lynching.”
Similarly, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who for decades represented black victims in police abuse cases, played the history card as much as the race card last year when he successfully suggested that police had framed Simpson for two slayings.
“It is not without ample experience and past provocation,” wrote Gibbs, “that blacks on the Simpson jury might well have been swayed by the defense theories of conspiracy and cover-up against O.J. by a cabal of racist cops, incompetent criminalists and complicit prosecutors.”
Gibbs and others say that those whose ancestors came here as slaves feel a desperate need to explain why, generations later, blacks are still battling to overcome second-class status. The plague of crack is painfully similar to the way alcohol and other drugs have seeped into so many black neighborhoods, always with the same results: destabilizing families, inviting more crime, enslaving the next generation.
In his acclaimed book “Two Nations,” an examination of racial mistrust, white sociologist Andrew Hacker put himself in a black person’s shoes as he tried to explain why the explanation of government neglect sounded so plausible:
“How else, you ask yourself, can one explain the incidence of death and debilitation from drugs and disease; the incarceration of a whole generation of young men; the consignment of millions of women and children to half-lives of poverty and dependency?”
So deeply ingrained are these suspicions that to some, their repetition comes dangerously close to rationalizing a lack of individual responsibility.
Roderick Piggee, a Los Angeles man serving 17 years in an Arizona federal prison for dealing crack, sees himself as a victim.
“It’s all part of a conspiracy to have genocide in the black community, to turn us against each other,” he said in a telephone interview.
Piggee’s certainty raises a question that troubles some: Is a crack merchant as much a martyr as the victims of old? How, for example, does his plight compare to the men that 19th century anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells defended? Wells, a young black woman, had her Memphis newspaper office destroyed after she wrote that many black men lynched for alleged assaults on white women were merely partners in interracial love affairs.
When Truth Spawns Rumors
The litany of real injustices has spawned rumors that stretch the imagination.
There is, for example, the theory that AIDS was invented by the government to exterminate blacks and homosexuals. It has been popularized by social satirist Dick Gregory, who was arrested at CIA headquarters last month demonstrating over the Mercury News’ drug allegations. Another popular rumor suggests that Church’s Chicken is owned by a klansman who puts ingredients in the food to make black men sterile.
Sometimes history and myth collide.
Blacks have long circulated the story that Charles Drew, the black physician whose early 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.
In family gatherings, churches and barber shops, there is an acceptance of conspiracy theories that rarely leaves the black community, says Patricia Turner, whose book “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” details how information is spread in African American neighborhoods.
“At one extreme,” she said, “people told me that Ronald Wilson Reagan had crack invented to kill off young black men because each of his three names has six letters,” regarded as a satanic sign.
The Mercury News articles told the story of one Los Angeles crack ring, led by dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross, that during the early 1980s allegedly bought cocaine from traffickers with ties to Nicaraguan Contras, a rebel group that was supported by the CIA. Within days of publication, a firestorm of accusations against the government began, some contending that the CIA had a direct hand in putting crack on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles. Talk radio stations made it their leading story for weeks, and the Mercury News’ World Wide Web page spread the story through cyberspace.
The strongest voice has been that of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose inner-city district has been ravaged by crack and who for years has said she suspected the government of exacerbating the problem. Look at the huge proportion of blacks being sentenced under new federal laws aimed at crack dealers, she said. That, the congresswoman suggested, represents an effort by the government to target blacks. She was just as outraged by what she characterized as an unofficial CIA “wink” of approval for Contra-linked cocaine smugglers.
Other politicians and community leaders have already proclaimed that the allegations represent an injustice worthy of reparations, like those paid to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
“We knew that some element was coming into our communities and destroying families,” said Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson). “It got to the point where we could not depend on each other. The village has been ruined by some outside force.”
To many blacks, the Mercury News story provided meaning beyond its words.
Many poor blacks have felt besieged by conservative politicians and abandoned by their traditional liberal allies, said Julianne Malveaux, an economist and media pundit on racial issues in Washington. The climate has fed the fears of many black Americans that someone out there is trying to get them, she said.
In that climate, the Mercury News allegations were greeted like a rescue.
“If you have people railing about the moral turpitude of the crack culture in the African American community, then it is refreshing to understand that the problems are not intrinsic to the community,” Malveaux said. “That’s what this newspaper series did. It made folks think that their problems were not their problems, that the government either caused their problems or knew about them and did nothing to stop it.”
To Malveaux and other scholars, that perspective is alarming.
Shelby Steele, a noted black essayist, worries that blaming the government implicitly takes some blame away from those who made the decision to use crack.
Although Steele says he supports the call for a congressional investigation of the allegations, he says the tone of the debate has become “a reenactment of history in which we are racial victims at the hands of a racist society. . . . This is a terrible distraction and gives us a reason to deepen black alienation from America.”
Black leaders have always been able to gain credibility and power by calling attention to earlier injustices, Steele said. “So we leap on it. It enhances our claims that ‘I’m being oppressed and victimized by my government.’
“If tomorrow morning we wake and find the government is totally guilty, what difference will it make?” he said. “We will still have the same challenges we have today, to become part of the American mainstream.”
Nevertheless, the rage over crack seems unlikely to abate.
At a congressional hearing on the issue attended by 800 people in Compton on Saturday, Bobbie Hodges-Betts was one of many who insisted that the past offered a road map to today’s pain.
“The government is lying,” she said as she left the hearing. “They didn’t tell the truth about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and they didn’t tell the truth about chemical warfare in Desert Storm. Now what makes you think they are telling the truth now?”
Hodges-Betts left in frustration, torn between her suspicions and her resentment that organizers of the hearing had treated dope dealer Ross as a victim.
“There are many people who are touched by this tragedy, including myself,” said Hodges-Betts, who said her 23-year-old son is battling an addiction to crack.
“I have seen what crack has done to my son. I watch him struggle every day. Ricky Ross is no hero. He set up the community, and he set up my son. He needs to be in prison, and so do some officials in the government.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THE COCAINE TRAIL / About This Series
The allegations were startling: A CIA-sponsored drug ring funneled millions of dollars in drug profits to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels and, in the process, opened the first pipeline for crack cocaine to Los Angeles. With the resulting furor in print and on the airwaves, The Times assigned a team of reporters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Nicaragua to investigate. This is their report:
* SUNDAY: Who first brought crack cocaine to Los Angeles, and how did it spread? What was the role of “Freeway” Ricky Ross in the drug epidemic? Who else played key roles?
* MONDAY: Did a CIA-sponsored operation funnel millions of dollars to the Nicaraguan Contras? What does the evidence show about the drug ring at the center of the current allegations?
* TODAY: What impact have history and the renewed allegations of CIA involvement in drug dealing had in Los Angeles? And what journalistic issues have been raised by the controversy?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A Case for Suspicion
African Americans often view U.S. history as a string of events in which government forces have planned or tolerated efforts to oppress or exterminate them. Slavery and legal segregation form the backbone of this belief, but numerous other developments--many long forgotten by whites and other minorities--have fueled suspicion and are routinely recounted. Here are some examples of how the present often reinforces an ugly past.
Contemporary: In Boston, Charles Stuart shoots his pregnant wife and tells police she was fatally wounded by black robbers. In South Carolina, Susan Smith rolls her car into a lake with her two sons inside, and then tearfully tells a national television audience that a black man had abducted them and stole her car.
Historical: In 1930, an all-white jury convicted a group of African American youths in Scottsboro, Ala. on charges of having raped two white women. Doctors disputed the charge, and eventually one of the women recanted--but not before the “Scottsboro boys” had languished in prison for years.
Contemporary: A judge sentences a Los Angeles merchant to probation with no jail time in the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins, a teenager the merchant claimed was shoplifting. Five days later, a Glendale dog owner is sentenced to 30 days in jail for beating his cocker spaniel puppy.
Historical: In two trials, all-white juries let Byron de la Beckwith go free after the Mississippi slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Thirty years later, an integrated jury convicted Beckwith of the murder.
Contemporary: In Florida, Christopher Wilson, a vacationing stock brokerage clerk, is doused with gasoline and set on fire while being taunted with racial epithets. In the mostly white Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, Yusuf Hawkins is shot to death in a confrontation with a group of bat-wielding white men who suspect that he is visiting a white woman.
Historical: In 1955, the swollen, mutilated body of 15-year-old Emmett Till was found in a Mississippi river. The Chicago teen-ager had been tortured and killed by a white mob that heard that he had whistled at a white woman. A generation before, in 1919, scores of black soldiers returning from World War I were lynched in 25 race riots across the country.
Contemporary: In Los Angeles, the police beating of Rodney G. King is captured on videotape, and the racist attitudes of O.J. Simpson case Det. Mark Fuhrman are captured on audiotape.
Historical: In 1979, Los Angeles resident Eulia Love was shot to death by Los Angeles policemen after she threw a knife at them during a dispute over an unpaid gas bill. And in 1981, Long Beach State football player Ron Settles was arrested for speeding and later found hanged in a Signal Hill jail cell. Signal Hill city officials later paid Settles’ family $760,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
Contemporary: As the AIDS epidemic scours America in the 1980s, blacks are one of the highest-hit groups.
Historical: In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service set out to research the effects of untreated syphilis by signing up 400 poor, illiterate black men in Tuskegee, Ala. They falsely told them that they were being treated, and spent the next 40 years monitoring the course of the disease as it spread.
Contemporary: Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry is convicted of cocaine possession after an FBI sting operation videotaped him smoking crack. He defends himself as another in a long line of black politicians targeted by the government.
Historical: In the 1960s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program led to the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and to the infiltration and disruption of the Black Panthers and other organizations.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Decade of Destruction
The toll of crack cocaine was severe and almost immediate. Law enforcement and health care officials saw an upsurge in cases related to crack use throughout the late 1980s.
Narcotics arrests in Los Angeles County. Much of the increase in the 1980s was tied to the widespread sale and use of crack cocaine, law enforcement and court officials say.
Estimates of drug abuse-related medical emergencies in Los Angeles County, involving smoked cocaine, based on an annual survey of hospitals.
Drug overdose- and drug abuse-related deaths in Los Angeles County in which cocaine was cited as a factor.
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services; Times interviews; California Department of Justice; UCLA Drug Abuse Research Center, Drug Use Forecasting Project.