D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has been tried, convicted and sentenced for cocaine possession. He has acknowledged using cocaine over some period of time. He describes himself as a recovering drug abuser.
And yet there are among his supporters those who will tell you -- who earnestly believe -- that Barry is a victim not of his own bad choices but of a nationwide conspiracy against black politicians.
Indeed, that "they" are out to discredit black elected officials is among the milder charges of the conspiracy-minded. The serious conspiratorialists are convinced that white America -- specifically including the national government -- is embarked on a scheme to do in blacks generally, a program of black genocide.
The New York Times recently published the results of a telephone survey of 1,000 New Yorkers on three often-cited elements of the anti-black conspiracy: that the government deliberately singles out and investigates black elected officials in order to discredit them; that the government deliberately sees to it that illicit drugs are available in low-income black neighborhoods; and that the AIDS virus was deliberately created to infect and destroy black people.
The findings: Three out of four black New Yorkers believe that it is true, or at least possibly true, that black politicians have been targeted by the government; 60 percent of blacks believe that it is true, or may be true, that the government is part of a conspiracy to put drugs into black neighborhoods; and 29 percent of blacks credit the notion that AIDS has been engineered to destroy blacks. (Whites believe that the charges are "almost certainly not true" by margins ranging from 57 percent in the case of black politicians, to 75 percent on the question of drugs, to 91 percent for AIDS.}
The biggest surprise for me was the finding that 63 percent of black New Yorkers think it is "almost certainly not true" that the AIDS virus was deliberately created to destroy blacks. (It's too bad The Times and WCBS-TV, which jointly conducted the poll, didn't ask whether AIDS was a deliberate attempt to wipe out homosexuals; the "almost certainly not true" category might have been dramatically smaller.)
I am not at all surprised at the other answers. As a matter of fact, if the question of conspiracy had been put more broadly, I might have joined the "might possibly be true" crowd. While I do not believe that there is any conspiracy in the sense of an orchestrated plan by the government to remove black officials from office, I would not be surprised to learn that at least some of the decisions to investigate public officials are politically -- and by extension, racially -- motivated. I have in mind cases ranging from J. Edgar Hoover's dogged campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. to the present administration's apparently abortive effort to nail Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.).
Ask me whether I believe the government's anti-drug effort might be more aggressively pursued if the primary victims of the drug traffic were young whites, and again I'd admit the possibility. Indeed, if you define "conspiracy" to include not just a coordinated plan of action but also widely held negative attitudes, I'd say there is at the very least a conspiracy of neglect against the black poor.
But that isn't what The New York Times/WCBS-TV respondents seem to have had in mind. Their belief is in a government plot to embarrass, displace or destroy blacks, by means of selective investigations and prosecutions, enticement to drug abuse and spread of AIDS. And I find much of that sort of thinking to be little more than a desire to escape personal responsibility.
Black Washingtonians, for instance, may believe (as I do) that the government went to unacceptable lengths to lure Barry into a situation where he could be videotaped using crack cocaine. But we must also believe that the decision to use crack -- during the FBI sting and before -- was Barry's own. It may be that the government would move with greater alacrity to combat drug trafficking if its victims included thousands of white youngsters, but it doesn't follow that the deaths of black youngsters are a calculated objective of the government or that the inner-city neighborhoods where drugs take their tragic toll have no responsibility for allowing the traffic to continue.
The trouble with laying the problems of black America at the feet of white conspirators is that it frustrates the search for solutions.
Define the troubles of black officials in terms of conspiracy, and blacks find themselves coming to the defense of people they ought to be kicking out of office. Define drug abuse or AIDS among blacks as products of a white conspiracy, and blacks are likely to spend more time proving the conspiracy than doing what they can to save black lives.
Whites may do less than they could, because they care less than they should, about the problems facing black America. But that doesn't absolve black America of the need to spend more effort addressing those problems and less in a fruitless search for scapegoats.