There’s been a lot of review of Reverend Wright’s sermons on the net recently, but I’m not sure that anyone has actually put the reasons why some of his more incorrect assertions were accepted in context. The reason why some of the statements people find so offensive from Wright aren’t considered crazy is because there is a measure of precedent for each of them.

Wright’s contention that AIDS was invented by white people to afflict blacks is wrong, but it’s not exactly crazy. It was, after all, only thirty years ago that the U.S. Government was revealed to have spent 40 years experimenting with black men and syphilis by deliberately leaving them untreated.

Furthermore, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women age 25-34, and African-Americans comprise half of the people who have contracted HIV in the U.S. Given the stunning indifference of public officials to these facts, that the government has disallowed treatment for “experimentation” purposes in the past, it is a paranoid but not entirely unfounded leap to suggest that the government might be responsible. While the U.S. Government did not “invent” AIDS, it certainly has ignored the magnitude of the problem in the black community, and Wright reads complicity into that indifference. (To believe that the U.S. government invented AIDS is to believe that they thought the best way to infect the black population was to infect gay men and heterosexual intravenous drug users first, which makes no $#@#! sense, sorry Kanye.)

Wrong, yes. Crazy, no.

Likewise, Wright’s assertion that the U.S. Government “gives” black men drugs is a paranoid reading of history, but once again there’s precedent. Reagan’s Iran/Contra scam knowingly provided drug dealers in Central and South America with means to move their product to the United States, sponsored drug dealer Manuel Noriega in various anti-Sandanista military activities, and protecting political allies involved in the drug trade, all in the name of fighting communism. While the Reagan administration was facilitating the drug trade in the United States, black neighborhoods were being devastated by crack cocaine and associated violence.

Did the government “give” black men drugs? No. It just made them readily available, and did little to nothing as drugs became the most affordable, high-yield, short term financial investment in an economy that was losing the kinds of jobs that provided benefits and a living wage. Once again, the issue is indifference: the government may not be directly responsible, but it certainly has done nothing to solve the problem once the gravity of the situation became clear.

At the heart of both of these claims is the perception that white people simply don’t care what happens to us, as long as it doesn’t affect them. At the heart of Obama’s pitch is solving this problem by making “black problems,” American problems, so that they can’t be approached with the same level of cold indifference that drives so much of Wright’s rage in the first place.

I get the impression that many white people have little to no knowledge about how messed up this country’s racial history is beyond slavery or Jim Crow. So stuff like the Tuskegee experiments, or what Reagan’s reckless exploitation of the drug trade in the fight against communism and what it did to urban communities, the kinds of things old heads teach youngbloods in casual conversation, are completely absent from their education (exaggeration is sometimes included in this form of pedagogy, as in most oral traditions. So that partially explains how horrifying but plausible stuff becomes indefensible conspiracy).

So it sounds crazy to most people when they hear Wright say things like “AIDS is genocide against black people” because they don’t know that the government has, in the past, denied sick people treatment because they were black as part of “medical research”. It sounds crazy to say the government “gives black people drugs” until you think of Reagan’s sponsorship of Columbian cartels.

Wright is wrong, but he’s not crazy. And there’s a big difference.

*some of the claims in a previous version of this post regarding syphilis were wrong, and they have been corrected.

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