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History Fuels Outrage Over Crack Allegations

Cocaine: Many blacks are more likely than whites to believe CIA had role in L.A.'s drug epidemic.

October 22, 1996|JOHN L. MITCHELL and SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"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."

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