Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

March 20, 2008

Obama and Black Distrust of the Health Professions

by @ 5:22 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Medical Science, Provider Roles, Research Issues

I have posted elsewhere on my reaction to Obama’s speech on race, and conservative reactions to it. But yesterday’s column by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post moves me to comment here specifically on the provocative remarks about AIDS that have been quoted in this controversy, and their implications for the larger questions that must be faced by this country.

As most people will be aware, the right wing has been Swift-boating Barack Obama for the past few weeks over controversial statements made at various times over several decades by the pastor of the black-identified Baptist church Obama attends in Chicago. Yeserday Obama responded with a speech on the history and role of race and racial discrimination in America – a speech that will stand within the highest ranks of American political oratory, and, I am convinced, be seen in the future as the watershed moment in race relations in this country (certainly so if Obama wins the presidency; likely so even if he does not). There is almost nothing in the speech about healthcare, and only a little about the particular statements of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that the right wing has picked out to whip up into controversy. Rightly, Obama placed the entire controversy in the larger context of racial history; many conservative commentators, angry at seeing their manufactured controversy dismissed in favor of more important and more substantive issues, responded with criticisms that Obama did not explicitly repudiate Wright and specific statements he had made, as they had demanded. Michael Gerson, in particular, focuses on Wright’s endorsement of the far-fetched conspiracy theory about AIDS that has been circulating in the black community.

Obama’s excellent and important speech on race in America did little to address his strange tolerance for the anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor.

Take an issue that Obama did not specifically confront yesterday. In a 2003 sermon, Wright claimed, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

This accusation does not make Wright, as Obama would have it, an “occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy.” It makes Wright a dangerous man. He has casually accused America of one of the most monstrous crimes in history, perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles. If Wright believes what he said, he should urge the overthrow of the U.S. government, which he views as guilty of unspeakable evil. If I believed Wright were correct, I would join him in that cause.

But Wright’s accusation is batty, reflecting a sputtering, incoherent hatred for America. And his pastoral teaching may put lives at risk because the virus that causes AIDS spreads more readily in an atmosphere of denial, quack science and conspiracy theories.

Obama’s speech implied that these toxic views are somehow parallel to the stereotyping of black men by Obama’s grandmother, which Obama said made him “cringe” — both are the foibles of family. But while Grandma may have had some issues to work through, Wright is accusing the American government of trying to kill every member of a race. There is a difference.

Gerson regards holding such an opinion as beyond the pale – and anyone who would believe such things as deranged. (“This accusation . . . makes Wright a dangerous man. . . . Wright’s accusation is batty, reflecting a sputtering, incoherent hatred for America . . . .”) Gerson is obviously grossly ignorant of the history and substance of these rumors, and the historical context in which they arise. And – like other conservatives dismissive of blacks’ reactions to America’s racial history – he seems to have no sense of what that context means to the people it most closely affects.

First, as a look at the links given above will demonstrate the AIDS conspiracy Wright endorses did not originate with, and is not limited to, African-Americans. White conspiracy theorists have been throwing around wild rumors about HIV/AIDS and germ warfare for a long time, and have developed them into intricate and extensive – and often bizarre – criticisms of both the received history of the AIDS epidemic and the scientific grounding of HIV research. Peter Duesberg, the most infamous of this crowd, is white, and has solid scientific credentials (which is not to say he’s not crazy); it was Duesberg who advised Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and lent credence to Mbeki’s crazed ravings, resulting in the destruction of that country’s public health system and uncountable deaths. Kary Mullis, also white and an infamous eccentric even before he won a Nobel Prize and went nuts, has likewise thrown his hat into that ring, lending still further credence to charges that are at best irrational and at worst irresponsibly dishonest or just crazy. Many of the other rumor-mongers are white as well.

So Jeremiah Wright is by no means acting alone in promoting such wild theories, nor are such theories evidence of “black nationalism” or “racial anger”. But they do have a particular resonance in the black-American community, and for reasons that make such beliefs, especially in that community, seem almost defensible.

The unconscionable history of abuse and mistreatment – by medical means among others – of black Americans makes it quite simply impossible to dismiss any further story of abuse as unlikely or unbelievable. The shocking reality of slavery alone – that an entire group of human beings would be degraded to subhuman status and treated as property, and not merely as such, but subject to unspeakable mistreatment and bodily abuse at the same time – would be unbelievable if it were not so mundanely true. After America did that to its own citizens, what else is not believable? What else is not possible? In the minds of very, very many black Americans, there is nothing they do not expect America could or will do to them – and on grounds of simple historical fact, they are far from wrong.

That suspicion and resentment find a distinct focus in the area of healthcare. The abuse of black Americans’ bodies by white America is a story that begins with slavery and extends to the modern day. In addition to the horrible abuses of slavery itself, the quasi-medical mistreatment of blacks it entailed stands as its own story. Black slaves were literally bred as stock, and their children sold out of their families, by slaveholders; they were systematically raped, openly, by their white oppressors for that purpose, as well as for simple pleasure. Their health was treated as an economic question – what care they got, and whether they got any, for their illnesses while in captivity was dependent upon its implications for their future profitable labor. In some parts of the South, it was simply cheaper to let slaves die of malaria (and replace them with slaves from more malaria-tolerant African sub-groups) than to treat them. But black slaves and ex-slaves played another role in American medical history.

Southern medical schools in the 19th century openly advertised for slaves or other black patients for students to practice on, and blacks were also often the source of cadavers for medical school dissections, and the subjects of medical experimentation, often against their will. Long before rumors of AIDS or other forms of medical mistreatment, there were long-standing fears in the black community of body-snatching and even vivisection in white medical schools. In some cases, ambitious doctors “borrowed” sickly slaves from white slaveholders, or or purchased them outright, for the purpose of performing experiments, usually (in keeping with the standards of the day) crude, unscientific, and painful or dangerous. James Marion Sims and his protege, Nathan Bozeman, perfected the surgical repair of vaginal fistula by performing a harrowing series of operations on black female slaves before the Civil War; some women underwent up to 30 operations before being cured. After developing a workable procedure on these slave women, Sims turned to operating on white women for profit for the rest of his career. (Ironically, today the procedure is used almost entirely on women of color, usually in the 3rd world, where the cause of these fistulas – tearing of the vagina in childbirth by teenage mothers – is concentrated.) Sims is today honored as “the father of gynecological surgery” with not one but two statues in New York City alone.

These practices continued into the 20th century. It is increasingly-widely known that many medical treatments, having been optimized on white male research populations, do not work as effectively on women and blacks. Again and again it has been shown that aggressive interventions – including basic procedures such as an immediate aspiring for suspected heart attack – are overlooked or under-prescribed for black patients (among other sub-groups). Blacks are vastly less likely to have health insurance in America, less likely to have insurance that covers their actual needs, and more likely to be denied coverage for recommended procedures. They are consistently more likely to remain undiagnosed for life-threatening illnesses, to remain untreated or undertreated for them, and to die of them, than white patients. And those are merely the everyday, systematic injustices that occur. The real scandals are even more shocking.

It has only recently been revealed that, after WWII, the US government conducted extensive experiments involving exposure of human subjects to dangerous levels of radiation, sometimes without their knowledge; almost all of the subjects were black. There have been many publicized scandals involving research on prison inmantes; what is often overlooked is that the subjects of those studies are not jsut prisoners but most often entirely or mainly black prisoners. Many white people today have heard of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study; almost all adult blacks have heard (at least some form of) the story. To whites, the story seems disorienting, unbelievable – to blacks it is all too familiar. That story is illustrative here, in another way: among the black community, the already-horrible facts about the Syphilis Study are often exaggerated to make the story worse than was actually true. Instead of a program to monitor untreated syphilis among already-infected patients, it is widely believed by black Americans to have involved actually infecting healthy patients with the disease. Instead of a limited program that grew out of a well-intended public health effort (scaled back to passive monitoring when the Depression hit and funding dried up), it is often believed to have been a calculated and planned program of genocide. But the actual facts are staggering enough – and these exaggerations are logical extensions of what did in fact occur; in principle and in effect (if not in literal fact) they are not even exaggerations.

It is difficult for those who have not had experience in the area to understand the pervasiveness of distrust this history – particularly Tuskegee, but the rest of it as well – has engendered in the black community. Teaching healthcare ethics in inner-city colleges, I have never once had a class with more than a few black students in it in which it was not the case that at least some – usually almost all – of the black students had heard of the Tuskegee scandal; not one of my white students has ever known of it before entering the class. Working in a major university healthcare center in a majority-black city, I once discovered it was literally impossible to get any black patients to even answer a simple questionnaire or listen to explanatory information about advanced directives for healthcare (being approached on the subject by a white man in a white coat probably didn’t help). I heard more than one whisper to a companion, as I walked away, that this mechanism – the foremost tool for promoting patient autonomy and individual rights in healthcare – was a plot by whites to kill blacks by turning off their life support. To a person who does not share a familial or cultural history of abuse and mistreatment of the kind detailed above, these fears and obsessions seem almost crazy. Why is an entire cultural subgroup fixated upon one regrettable, but aberrational, scandal from decades ago? Why would they fear the system that, almost alone in modern society, still embodies a truly altruistic ethos and agonizes over its own failure to adequately serve its underserved client populations? How crazy do you have to be to think your doctor is trying to kill you?

Not crazy at all, if you’re black. It has been done. That is the bottom line – the inescapable truth that comes back again and again in any context which puts black Americans under the influence of the healthcare system. That system – particularly, and mostly, mainline medicine as practiced by white male physicians – has turned itself to the organized and systematic abuse of black patients and research subjects, not in one or a few isolated incidents, but again and again, in the most varied settings and through the most bizarre and abusive practices. It is not crazy – it does not even require any great stretch of the imagination – to think that medical doctors, or the government, would have created a disease to decimate the black population. They have allowed diseases to spread through that population while active working to prevent their cure. They have exposed blacks to diseases and toxic conditions, and invented birth control regimens marketed primarily to black populations, that had the effect of systematically diminishing, sterilizing, and to at least some degree eradicating black Americans as a group. They have connived at the importation of addictive drugs that have primarily affected the black community, in epidemic proportions. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS for years, at a time when the most good could have been done to head off the eventual epidemic, out of its repugnance at the pimary victim populations of gays and non-whites.

If the government had actually anticipated that AIDS would particularly affect the black community, and stood aside to allow it to happen, that would be nothing more than an absolutely literal recreation of its behavior in regard to other diseases in the past. The step from there to the idea that the government might actually have created that disease is a small one, and hardly far-fetched in light of other things the government and medical researchers really have done. Now, it appears in fact that the US government did not invent AIDS, or deliberately encourage its spread through the black community – although they did stand by and watch for years as it happened in front of them. But with all this history behind, who would not suspect the government might have played an active, and not just a passive, role in creating the epidemic? If you were a member of a group condemned generation after generation to the kinds of treatment detailed above*, and then witnessed the history of AIDS – its prevalence closely tracked by government researchers who somehow could never quite find anything useful to offer as it destroyed the most vulnerable and downtrodden subgroups of American society – how could you not at least suspect that there was more to the story than met the eye? Given what actually has been done, time and again, generation by generation right up to the present, on what grounds can it be asserted that there is anything the government, or the medical community, might not do if they took it into their heads? What story possibly could be too far-fetched to believe in, given the range and number of seemingly unbelievable stories of medical abuse of blacks that are actually true, documented, and admitted?

Gerson, however – and I would guess at least 90% of white America – cannot grasp this. He really thinks it is unthinkable to imagine the things Jeremiah Wright imagines. In fact, he thinks such beliefs are so far gone that they – the beliefs themselves, and not the history that gives rise to them – are unAmerican:

[Believing that the US government created AIDS and unleashed it on black Americans] makes Wright a dangerous man. He has casually accused America of one of the most monstrous crimes in history, perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles. If Wright believes what he said, he should urge the overthrow of the U.S. government, which he views as guilty of unspeakable evil.

This reaction is in a way darkly humorous. Gerson finds it literally unbelievable that black Americans would believe that America is guilty of “monstrous crimes . . . perpetrated by a conspiracy of medical Mengeles”, and of “unspeakable evil”. The joke is that, not only do many blacks believe the things he thinks are unbelievable, but those things are, in fact, true. Leaving aside the question of AIDS, what was the 40-year Tuskegee Study but “a conspiracy of medical Mengeles”? Does not the unending history of research abuses, disdain for autonomy or consent, torturous experiments on helpless slaves and prisoners, and systematic mistreatment and undertreatment of black patients constitute “unspeakable evil”? And even if the AIDS story were true, it pales, in timespan, prevalence, death toll, and sheer moral degeneracy, beside the 400 250-year history of chattel slavery, and 400 years of systematic oppression, that America openly and deliberately imposed on its black citizens. Is that not “one of the most monstrous crimes in history”? Since America, and its doctors, did in fact do all this and more, how is it unthinkable that it should have committed just one further such abuse, in the case of AIDS? That belief appears in fact to be mistaken, but in light of history it’s hardly irrational. And if Wright, knowing what he knows, and believing (mistakenly) what he believes, does not actually urge the overthrow of the US government, is it not at least understandable he should cry out to God to damn the government?

But Wright’s accusation is batty, reflecting a sputtering, incoherent hatred for America.

This is nonsense. Wright’s accusation is perfectly rational, although false. I have no idea whether Wright holds a “sputtering, incoherent hatred for America” (though he appears to me to be in no way incoherent). But the belief in the AIDS conspiracy reflects nothing more than the established historical facts of the syphilis conspiracy, the Holmesburg prison dermatology conspiracy, the Norplant (semi-)conspiracy, the nuclear radiation conspiracy, the conspiracy to promote research on slaves, the conspiracy to steal black bodies for medical school dissection, and many more over many years. The widespread black suspicion regarding the medical profession is grounded on facts Gerson has obviously never heard of. It is far more rational, and in content far more true, than Gerson’s offhanded dismissal of such suspicions as “batty”, false, or inexplicable.

Obama’s speech implied that these toxic views are somehow parallel to the stereotyping of black men by Obama’s grandmother, which Obama said made him “cringe” — both are the foibles of family. But while Grandma may have had some issues to work through, Wright is accusing the American government of trying to kill every member of a race. There is a difference.

Here I think Gerson is just suffering from the traditional Conservative Reading-Comprehension Disorder. Obama did not state any equivalence between the views of these parties – he said that he cannot eject either of them from his life for the same reason – that they are family. (And why would he? If he loves his grandmother in spite of her unconscious prejudices regarding blacks, why would he not love Wright in spite of his factual error regarding AIDS?) And again, as for Wright’s accusations about AIDS, he may be wrong but there is no ground for regarding those views as extremist, outrageous, or inexplicable. If Obama’s exposure to his grandmother’s unreconstructed ideas made him “cringe”, how could Wright’s knowledge of the very real history of medical abuse of US citizens not take the form of a much stronger reaction?

The fact that that reaction is forthcoming, and resonates so strongly, as I am sure it does, with so many black Americans, is a reflection not of their “hatred of America”, but of their acute awareness of America’s treatment of their families and others like them, and of their perception that that history has not fully run its course. In light of that history, the calls of oblivious whites for a “post-racist” or “colorblind” society are not just stupid, but morally offensive. Too many whites are like Gerson – simply uncomprehending that blacks can really believe that America would continue to treat them, today, the way America has always treated them in the past, right up to today. The first step in reconciling these two visions of America – a credulous vision of universal beneficence maintained by exhaustive ignorance of black history, and a corrosively suspicious vision grounded on pervasive historical reality – is to wake whites up to the historical grounds for, and justification for, black grievance and suspicion. That grounding of historical fact goes far beyond slavery and Jim Crow (as if those weren’t proof enough of the darkest suspicions imaginable); it is a factor of literally every generation, every family, in some way every life that makes up the black community in the United States down through the years, and it invades every aspect of such lives, including, shamefully and grievously, their encounters with the “healing professions”.

Obama – with perhaps too much sense of balance – brought forth the tiniest, least threatening glimpse of that history in his speech, and put it in the context of white grievances over “reverse discrimination”. (Talk about inappropriate parallels!) Even that was obviously too much for Gerson and whites like him. It spun his head, boggled him with aromas of “sputtering, incoherent hatred”. Until that reality sinks in with all its awful force – clearly too much for defensive whites to grapple with even at this date – Obama, and we all, may be doomed to continue living out that cancerous, Faulknerian past that is not past, within sight but not within grasp of what might have been.

UPDATE: As others have noted, slavery did not persist for 400 years in America; it is generally agreed that the first known slave was brought to the colonies in 1619, and slavery ended with the end of the Civil War in 1865, not quite 250 years later. It has been almost 400 years that black Americans have lived as the de facto, and for most of that time de jure, underclass. The description in the text above elided the distinction between the two; it has been corrected.

UPDATE: As Tgirsch notes in comments, Obama’s church is not affiliated with the Baptists. 
* And much, much more. A heartbreaking, infuriating, but very necessary review of the medical mistreatment of black Americans can be found in the indispensable volume Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet Washington. As Washington herself notes, its 400+ pages only skim the surface of experimental abuse of blacks, and leave therapeutic mistreatment almost untouched. This legacy is truly evil, and poisonous in ways that can only be dimly sketched.

19 Responses to “Obama and Black Distrust of the Health Professions”

  1. JoAnne Says:

    It’s depressing that all of your White students were totally ignorant of Tuskegee. I somehow thought that was fairly common knowledge among educated people of all colors in the US. I know I knew about it when I was in high school, and that was in the ’70s.

  2. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Hey, – thanks for commenting!

    Yes – I’ve found that distressing, too. And it holds good for both my college-age (late-teens to early 20s) students and older adult students I’ve also taught.

    The younger students I can kind of understand. It’s a shame that the white students aren’t taught this history, but America practices a deeply entrenched and active form of denial about all the less-appealing aspects of its past. High school curricula, as far as I can tell, generally whitewash the treatment of Native Americans, gloss over the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII in a paragraph or two, and present a very self-congratulatory view of the abolition and civil-rights movements. Because class, race, gender and other discriminatory divisions are not treated systematically, history is just a sequence of episodes – so slavery, Jim Crow, women’s oppression, and all the rest “just happened”, not as the result of anything innate about the country or its politics. Any incident not rising to the level of a major war or Constitutional amendment doesn’t get mentioned. But for the black kids, this stuff is bred in the bone.

    The older adults worried me more. They should know this. But what I noticed, teaching for years in a college program aimed at older, working adult students, most of whom had graduated, years previously, from the same public high school system as my younger students, is that they did not have a much broader knowledge base than the younger students. They had essentially stopped learning at high school graduation – so, 20 years further on, they came into college with more life experience but basically the same level of book learning as the 18-year old recent graduates. They had not spent the intervening 20 years reading and learning about history, politics, or the natural world. (In many ways they knew less, because they had spent the intervening 20 years forgetting what they learned in high school – as we all do.)

    This, I think, is a product not of our cultural tendency to ignore or distort our past, but of the more general American distaste for intellectualism. Reading for pleasure is a hobby activity, appealing to a minority but not regarded as a basic part of ordinary life; readers of non-fiction are a subset within that hobby. Knowing about your world and its history in any factual detail is simply not regarded as important, in this country. And knowing about the history of cultural or ethnic groups other than your own would be regarded as quixotic or even weird. Along with that comes our refusal to treat ideas seriously, or as requiring thoughts, and harboring complexities, too complicated for a one-breath soundbite. The same impulse that made so many people dismiss Obama’s speech – because it avoided condemning one man, and called for mutual understanding between two complex cultural traditions – is the one that drives people away from learning this stuff in the first place, or teaching it to our young. Complex ideas are hard, and complicated histories don’t boil down to simplistic good or bad categorizations. Better not to know.

  3. SAM Says:

    Wow, excellent post. Thanks for the context, and the reference.

  4. Dirk Says:

    I agree with JoAnne and then some–it’s not just depressing, but bewildering, to contemplate that today’s healthcare ethics students wouldn’t already have some idea of this part of American history.

    I’m starting to side with the “we’re just willfully ignorant” theory to explain a lot of this. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but then, this is harsh stuff to confront and a lot of Americans really, really don’t want to.

    Oh, and your takedown of the use of the term “colorblind” — I may have to steal that.

  5. Pandagon :: Two kinds of woo contrasted :: March :: 2008 Says:

    […] You know, I had a weary response semi-scripted in my head to those people making a fuss over Obama’s old minister’s belief in conspiracy theories about where HIV came from, a response that would both be understanding of why people fall for conspiracy theories while still maintaining that the truth is the most important thing, and conspiracy theories need to be pushed back against. With a soupcon of explaining why the underlying themes of conspiracy theories about the medical profession that proliferate in the black community are understandable, considering the circumstances. But luckily, wiser heads than me have tackled this problem, so I recommend reading them instead on this issue. […]

  6. Darleen Says:

    Wow. Shocking. Absolutely shocking! Slavery existed only in Amerikkka, never before, never since and only ever involved people of a certain melanin label!

    Well, the above might not be fact or truth but you have to understand my context. Right?

    Either things are facts or they are not. Making excuses for Wright’s conspiracy mongering about AIDS is like making excuses for Holocaust deniers.

    Barry Obama has run his campaign as the Post-Racial candidate — now easily belied by his 20 year close, intimate association with Wright.


  7. Jason Says:

    People like Darleen are so sad; they simply cannot–or will not–overcome their ignorance; indeed, they seem to embrace it. As you said in a comment, intellectualism is disdained in America. I mean, her analogy didn’t even make any sense. And how many times did you cite Wright’s own ignorance or mistaken beliefs?

    I absolutely love Obama, but his speech–excellent as it was–demonstrated something about him that has continued to irk me. He is brilliant, but stops short of being as forceful as he should be. Passive high-mindedness and eloquence may work wonders for convincing America to change the party in the White House, but truly moving the country into a post-racial 21st century will require more direct and stark comments from the hopefully president-to-be. For instance, he needed to mention things like Tuskeegee and Kligman. White people, as you said yourself, are not cognizant of those things, and so they do not see the rationale behind Wright’s conspiracy theory. He also needs to do more than claim to have been absent on these days; that is really weak, and he’s getting creamed on the Right. Like it or not, he has just become the spokesperson for liberation theology, and he’s going to have to do more to justify his embrace of that ideology, just as Romney or Kennedy had to justify their faith to an ignorant country that is distrustful of the Other.

    I wish Obama–and someone with a media outlet–would also go back over the transcripts of those sermons and explicate the theology and put the comments in perspective. The God damn America line in particular is defensible once the previous and following paragraphs are provided. Wright was speaking of the fall of arrogant empires since the fall of Israel–a nation God struck down b/c of their own arrogance–and demonstrating how America’s claim to bear God’s endorsement is both arrogant and misguided. Remember, Christianity is a religion based on the unworthiness of all we see; God does not endorse anything here; He only offers Grace to those who seek Him out.

    The media is lazy and already accused of being Obama’s main support staff, so this is unlikely. The Senator himself is going to have to put this stuff out there in order to reach the audience he needs to educate.

    Thanks for doing your part.

  8. B Moe Says:

    If by America you are referring to the Federal Government, you are completely wrong. Individual citizens kept slaves, the Federal Government launched the most brutal war in our history to stop the practice. Some states, and private entities then continued oppressive practices, and yes, some ethically and morally wrong medical practices against minorities, but again it was the Federal Government who stepped in and stopped these things. The Civil Rights movement’s success was on the back of the National Guard and the FBI.

    …beside the 400-year history of chattel slavery that America openly and deliberately imposed on its black citizens.

    Since the US has only been a country for a bit over 200 years, statements like this make me wonder what exactly you mean by America in the first place.

  9. Darleen Says:


    Wright isn’t ignorant. How many times has his educated creds been cited? Wright exploits the paranoia of others. He used his position of authority to disseminate fiction as fact. No amount of equivocating about “well, given the awful history … let me mix some facts with opinion here” excuses it. The analogy is apt, since there are white supremacist [ostensible] “churches” who promulgate anti-Semitic as well as anti-Black lines. What should people think of authors that tried to give a leader of one of those “churches” as pass based on the awful things that leader might have seen?

    As B Moe points out… why only 400 years of “American” chattel slavery? Blacks weren’t the first slaves in the New World (the Irish were) and certainly they weren’t the only slaves. My family was sold out of a debtors prison and brought to the New World in 1697, then sold to work on a Virginia plantation.

    Makes me much more a member of the American slave experience than Obama can ever claim.

  10. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Wow. Shocking. Absolutely shocking! Slavery existed only in Amerikkka, never before, never since and only ever involved people of a certain melanin label! Well, the above might not be fact or truth but you have to understand my context. Right? Either things are facts or they are not. Making excuses for Wright’s conspiracy mongering about AIDS is like making excuses for Holocaust deniers.

    As you’ll note on re-reading the text, I said repeatedly Wright’s beliefs regarding AIDS were false. But they are not worthy of criticism if they are rationally justifiable as beliefs (we all harbor false beliefs of various kinds, but some are groundless, some are based on invalid grounds, and some are rational).

    Your statements above are groundless, contradict well-known facts, have no support among knowledgeable researchers, and appear to be the product of some sort of racist grudge. The same is true of Holocaust denial. Those are reasons for rejecting those beliefs.

    None of that is true of Wright’s beliefs about AIDS. I explained that in detail. He is wrong about them, but they are not far-fetched – only false. There is good evidence disproving them, but it is technical, and it is the product of the same system that is responsible for so many similar abuses in the past. It would be understandable that that evidence would be discounted – and if it is, Wright’s beliefs become all too rational, grounded on all too real historical evidence. It is not his fault that that is true, and it seems to me hard to blame him for not overcoming the suspicions that history engenders. It is not his – or any other black person’s – responsibility to convince themselves that the people who enslaved and abused them in the past will not do so again – particularly in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

  11. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    If by America you are referring to the Federal Government, you are completely wrong. Individual citizens kept slaves, the Federal Government launched the most brutal war in our history to stop the practice. Some states, and private entities then continued oppressive practices, and yes, some ethically and morally wrong medical practices against minorities, but again it was the Federal Government who stepped in and stopped these things. The Civil Rights movement’s success was on the back of the National Guard and the FBI.

    America existed long before the United States of America, or the US government.

    Regarding the federal role in abolition and the civil rights movement, there was one, but yours is a bizarrely strained version of it. The federal government fought to preserve the union – after delaying action on slavery as long as it could do so, and after Lincoln’s explicit statement that he would keep slavery to save the union if necessary. (Recall also his First Inaugural address, in which he explicitly endorsed a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the abolition of slavery ever afterward, and the fact that his Emancipation Proclamation explicitly exempted the Northern slave-holding states and counties that did not secede – in which legal slavery persisted after the Civil War.) The Supreme Court of the US was responsible for all the pro-slavery decisions that preceded the civil war, and the pro-segregation decisions the followed it until finally reversing itself in 1954. The National Guard troops that opened Southern schoolhouses under federal orders were the same troops that had been keeping them closed under state orders – and I suspect it hardly matters to the victims which badge the oppressor wears. The FBI that helped block the Klan during the Civil Rights Movement is the same FBI that bugged Martin Luther King’s hotel rooms, taped him having sex, and then sent the tapes to his wife with a note suggesting that King should commit suicide.

    Aside from any few particular examples, the bare fact is that slavery and Jim Crow were legal and upheld by the Constitution for almost 200 years, and that systematic segregation and oppression continued long after the few landmark Court rulings of the Civil Rights movement. Anti-black discrimination was not just the isolated product of individuals acting without any guidance or approval – it was, literally, the law of the land throughout the largest part of the country’s history. That law was imposed by legislatures and enforced by courts and police, generation after generation. And it created a lasting legacy of underclass status, social division, and simultaneously triumphal and self-justifying white arrogance that marks almost every aspect of society today. Discrimination, and official oppression, on the basis of race and sex are the defining characteristics of American society, and they were never accidental or contingent – they were both written into the Constitution itself (as interpreted by white men), and enforced by law and social practice for centuries.

  12. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    there are white supremacist [ostensible] “churches” who promulgate anti-Semitic as well as anti-Black lines. What should people think of authors that tried to give a leader of one of those “churches” as pass based on the awful things that leader might have seen?

    Nobody is given a “pass” out of rationality . . . except religious believers and conservatives, of course.

    The problem with white supremacists is not that they believe plausible but false things. It is that they believe things that no rational person should, and no decent person would. They are so obviously wrong in the most important parts of what they believe that their persistence in those beliefs can only be attributed to, literally, irrational animus.

    No such criticisms attach to Wright. His claims about AIDS are false but they do not have to be explained by irrational animus. In the face of the undisputed historical legacy of white experimentation on, and manipulation of diseases in, blacks in America, they are perfectly plausible (though false), and, given that they can only be disproven by technical arguments largely wielded by the same kinds of people who were unquestionably guilty of abusing and manipulating blacks in the past, they are hard to overcome in a skeptical audience. That still does not mean they are correct, but they are nothing like Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic libels.

    You persist in evaluating these various arguments – by Wright, or by Nazis, or by anti-Semites – with no reference at all to their factual basis or their historical context. I would think those would be the only bases on which it would be possible to evaluate them. I can only conclude that, for you, argument and belief does not depend upon fact or inference – what I don’t understand is why you think that makes you superior to Wright as a critical thinker. It seems obvious to me it does not.

  13. tgirsch Says:

    I have to take issue with a factual error in the beginning of this column. Obama’s church is not a “black Baptist church.” It’s the Trinity United Church of Christ — UCC is the denomination, and most Baptists would hardly recognize it. They’re a staunchly anti-war denomination (any war, not just this war), they welcome homosexuals into their ranks, and some congregations (my wife’s, for example) even preform same-sex marriage ceremonies (which are purely ceremonial and have no binding in law, at least not here in Tennessee).

  14. tgirsch Says:

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, I didn’t learn about Tuskegee until I was in my late 20’s, or maybe even my early 30’s.

  15. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Tgirsch: you are right about the church. Thanks for the correction.

  16. Sufficient Scruples » Blog Archive » Obama: Scandalizing All the Right People Says:

    […] Michael Gerson, Bush administration tool and terminal sufferer from Conservative Comprehension Disorder, continues his pattern of getting everything exactly backwards in his Washington Post-sponsored campaign of attacks on Barack Obama. The day after April Fool’s Day (he must have missed a deadline), Gerson published another misinformed screed, this one claiming that Obama is an “extremist” on abortion for opposing laws that would have sentenced women to death. As usual with Gerson and the forced-pregnancy crowd generally, almost everything he says is factually false, and a repetition of standard right-wing myths. The column consists of nothing more than Gerson and the Post carrying water for the organized anti-woman crowd by repeating their well-worn talking points verbatim, with no pretense of originality or reportorial integrity. He begins with a standard myth that, for reasons that entirely escape me, has become some sort of cri du combat among forced-pregnancy activists: In the summer of 1992, as Bill Clinton solidified his control over the Democratic Party, Robert P. Casey Sr. . . . was banned from speaking to the Democratic convention for the heresy of being pro-life. The elder Casey (now deceased) was then the governor of Pennsylvania — one of the most prominent elected Democrats in the country. He was an economic progressive in the Roosevelt tradition. But his Irish Catholic conscience led him to oppose abortion. So the Clintons chose to humiliate him. […]

  17. Paul Sheridan Says:

    The post ‘JoAnne Says: March 22nd, 2008 at 7:26 pm’ which implicitly promotes the bigotry that only “White students” are ignorant of Tuskegee is absurd on its face, and confirmation of her INTRINSIC racism. And the response by the dolt Kevin Keith, which just rolls along with no substantive observation of her racism is confirmation of HIS intrinsic stupidity and lack of morality. Pick any race, religion, nationality, etc. and we can provide you with millions who are ignorant of Tuskegee.

    But speaking of ignorance, perhaps this Keith dolt can point to the definitive, peer-reviewed paper that proves that a distinct entity promoted as “HIV” exists, and then point to the definitive, peer-reviewed paper that proves that it, and it along causes “AIDS.” Certainly a hot-shot highly informed dolt like Keith can educate the rest of us with those simple references. Yeah . . . right.

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