Culture

Conspiracy-a-Rama

Gang graffiti on a street sign in Chicago, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty)
A return to the paranoid style in African-American politics

From time to time, something will leap out to me as an illustration of the fact that blacks and whites often inhabit separate realities. I’ve often told the story of the editorial in a black neighborhood newspaper in Philadelphia warning African-Americans to flee urban areas in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential elections because George W. Bush was planning to — this was presented as unquestionable fact – use nuclear weapons against the inner cities to suppress the black vote. This wasn’t somebody ranting on Twitter — this was in print, in a regularly published newspaper that was, in the early days of the 21st century, still a going concern.

I’ve come to call this sort of thing (with apologies to Richard Hofstadter) the paranoid style in African-American politics. Mild versions of conspiracy theories play a large role in mainstream American politics in the form of folk beliefs about how government works, the role of lobbyists and campaign contributions, and the like. For right-wing populists, it’s the “Establishment” and the “donor class,” for left-wingers it’s the Koch brothers, Big Oil, Big Money, Big Bigness, etc. We’ve all heard the story of how we could be running our automobiles on seawater if not for the fact that the petro-billionaires are suppressing the technology. The closer you get to the fringes, the more prominent the role of conspiracy theories. But it seems to me that conspiracy theory plays an outsize role in mainstream African-American political discourse.

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For example, I was listening to a program yesterday on Sirius XM Urban View (one of the half-dozen lefty-dominated stations that Sirius offers to offset its one conservative station, the Patriot) when the hosts presented as uncontested fact that Chicago’s street gangs, which are the source of much of the blood currently running in Chicago’s streets, are a creation of the FBI. Before the FBI, the host said, there were progressive community-improvement organizations in Chicago, not violent street gangs, but the FBI infiltrated these organizations and “turned them against each other.” Of course. “That’s what they do,” the host insisted. Who? They — you know: Them: the FBI, “sellout Negroes,” as the host put it. Never mind that that’s not only untrue but wildly, madly untrue — there are, for example, active Chicago criminal gangs that trace their origins back to the 1950s and earlier — it tells the sort of story that a certain kind of listener wants to hear.

There always is just enough of a smidgen of truth: For example, Chicago’s Vice Lords did engage in various kinds of civic projects, partly for the purpose of money-laundering and disguising criminal activities, and they even applied for — and won – a Rockefeller Foundation grant; the FBI did maintain a dirty-tricks division that targeted, among others, the Black Panthers and civil-rights activists, and engaged in illegal spying and harassment campaigns personally authorized by Robert F. Kennedy, the great liberal hero.

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(Like a great deal of what’s wrong with American government, this really got under way during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, who ordered the FBI to monitor those who opposed his foreign policy and supported the anti-war campaign of Charles Lindbergh. This puts me in mind of a side note: If you’re wondering what could possibly go wrong with empowering the federal government to strip citizens of their constitutional rights with no due process, or even an avenue of appeal, as congressional Democrats currently propose, meditate upon our government’s shameful history of illegally suppressing domestic political critics.)

But the FBI did not create Chicago street gangs; the people of Chicago did. This is very much like the folk belief, prominent in black discourse, that the CIA invented crack cocaine and introduced it into American cities. This remarkable claim is spun out of a number of unremarkable facts: In the 1980s, the U.S. government wanted to see anti-Communist rebels in Central America succeed, some of those rebel groups had links to the cocaine trade (as indeed did the Communists they were fighting), and the CIA wasn’t especially interested in that fact. That’s a long way from “the CIA invented crack to destroy African-American communities,” but the salacious version is the one that travels most widely.

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I have spent many years following the myth of Willie Lynch, the entirely fictitious slave consultant whose blueprint for subjecting black Americans is taken in many quarters as historical fact.

#share#Old-fashioned peckerwood-trash racists are in short supply (and very much out of fashion) today, especially on college campuses. When they do show up, the response of college administrations is generally swift and severe: The drunken idiot kid at Mizzou who used a racial slur to refer to some of his fellow students was immediately banned from the campus “pending the outcome of the conduct process,” and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be permitted to return. (Which is fine by me, incidentally: Colleges ought to expect a certain standard of behavior from their students, and expulsion is a perfectly acceptable means of enforcing those standards.) When a student at another college made a racist threat on the messaging app YikYak, University of Missouri police had him behind bars the next day. Compare that with the treatment of Professor Melissa Click, who assaulted a student journalist (the crime is caught on video) on the campus and attempted to arouse protesters to mob violence against him but remains comfortably ensconced in her professorship rather than in jail, despite the student’s having filed a police complaint. Anything with a hint of bigotry to it is prioritized.

(Some bigotry, anyway: Casual black anti-Semitism is generally permitted to fly under the radar.)

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In an environment like that, the racial-grievance entrepreneur is reduced to making things up: A racist death threat similar to the one made at the University of Missouri was made at a college in Michigan — by a black student, as it turns out. Phony acts of racist vandalism and manufactured hate crimes on campus are common, probably more common than actual acts of racist vandalism. Missouri students rage about the Ku Klux Klan, whose most prominent act in Missouri in recent memory was adopting a stretch of Interstate 55. The new enemy is attested to by spectral evidence: privilege, invisible but pervasive white supremacy, patriarchy, microaggression.

#related#The conspiracy theory is tempting. But Detroit isn’t Detroit because of the FBI or the Ku Klux Klan or microaggression or privilege: Detroit has been for decades under almost exclusively black government, government that is at the municipal level in fact self-consciously black, practitioners of what one Detroit News columnist in 2009 called “the black nationalism that is now the dominant ideology of the council.” Detroit hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1957, and after its bankruptcy convulsions it elected Mike Duggan, a Democrat who is the first non–African American to hold that job since Coleman Young came into power in 1974. The implosion of Detroit ought to have occasioned some interesting discussion about the relationship between black-dominated cities, progressive ideology, and the Democratic party, but, instead, we got more conspiracy theory: The Reverend Charles E. Williams II insisted that the situation in Detroit was part of an effort to “suppress and dismantle democracy, break the back of workers, and directly attack our voting rights,” while connecting the state government’s response to Jim Crow. Melissa Harris-Perry insisted that Detroit failed because of — seriously — its excessive commitment to Republican small-government policies. She may as well have argued that George W. Bush nuked Detroit.

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Again, this isn’t limited to black political discourse, though such daftness does run deeper into the black mainstream than it does elsewhere. It is difficult to imagine a white equivalent of Louis Farrakhan (George Lincoln Rockwell?) receiving the sort of respectful and deferential coverage given to Farrakhan, who believes that white people were invented by a wicked prehistorical scientist. But sometimes I’ll encounter one of those specimens who want to tell me about how the Jews are secretly running the world, and what always stands out about these types isn’t their hatred, but how sad they are. And it is the sadness that explains the love of conspiracy theory: The truth is too terrible to consider.

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