Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Tuskegee Legacy: AIDS and the Black Community

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Tuskegee Legacy: AIDS and the Black Community

Article excerpt

No scientific experiment inflicted more damage on the collective psyche of black Americans than the Tuskegee study. After Jean Heller broke the story in 1972, news of the tragedy spread in the black community. Confronted with the experiment's moral bankruptcy, many blacks lost faith in the government and no longer believed health officials who spoke on matters of public concern. Consequently, when a terrifying new plague swept the land in the 1980s and 1990s, the Tuskegee study predisposed many blacks to distrust health authorities, a fact many whites had difficulty understanding.

"Bizarre as it may seem to most people," declared the lead editorial in the New York Times on 6 May 1992, "many black Americans believe that AIDS and the health measures used against it are part of a conspiracy to wipe out the black race." To support their assertion, the editor cited a survey of black church members in 1990 that revealed "an astonishing 35 percent believed AIDS was a form of genocide." Moreover, a New York Times/WCBS TV news poll conducted the same year found that 10 percent of all black Americans thought the AIDS virus was "deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people," and 20 percent believed it could be true.[1]

Nor were such beliefs limited to the lay public. Many black health workers, the Times continued, refused to dismiss these fears out of hand. One individual, testifying before the National Commission on AIDS, declared that she considered AIDS a manmade disease "until proven otherwise." Similar suspicions cast a shadow over efforts to control the epidemic.

The attitudes black Americans brought to AIDS were historically constructed. Scientific and medical theories were not the only elements that shaped how blacks viewed this terrifying disease: social, political, religious, and moral conceptions influenced their perceptions and understandings as well.

Above all, many black Americans saw AIDS through the prism of race, which brought more than three and a half centuries of white-black relations into focus. Slavery, sharecropping, peonage, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement, residential segregation, and job discrimination were the substance to which many Afro-Americans reduced all American history, forming a saga of hatred, exploitation, and abuse.

Two readers who found the editors of the New York Times strangely ahistorical drove home this point. M. William Howard, the president of the New York Theological Seminary, was mystified how anyone could think it "astonishing" that many blacks believed AIDS was a form of genocide. To him, such views were "the inevitable result of black people's living in a society in which we are so alienated from the mainstream that many of us believe America will stop at nothing to eliminate us." Another reader thought that the use of words like bizarre to describe black peoples' fears "in and of itself reeks of an insensitivity to the history of blacks in this country and why they would have good reasons to feel conspired against." As proof, the man cited "the Tuskegee experiment of the 1930's."[2] For many blacks, the Tuskegee study became a symbol of their mistreatment by the medical establishment, a metaphor for deceit, conspiracy, malpractice, and neglect, if not outright racial genocide.

Memories of the experiment refused to die. The anger and fears evoked by the Tuskegee study's disclosure in 1972 reappeared a decade later when Bad Blood was published, setting off another round of discussions as a new generation learned about the experiment. Thus, by the time the AIDS epidemic struck America, the Tuskegee study had left many black Americans suspicious of health authorities. Mistrust in the black community deepened as many white Americans expressed attitudes about AIDS victims that were remarkably similar to the beliefs most white Americans shared about syphilitic blacks earlier in the century. …

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