“In the United States, a rumor that AIDS is part of a government conspiracy to control the population of minorities circulates persistently among African American communities…” notes AIDS rumors, imaginary enemies, and the body politic (citing this book). This article, published in American Ethnologist in 2008, traces a series of rumors that surfaced in 1990s Indonesia. In these rumors a common theme emerges: some unknown individual in a crowded place, often a mall, pricks a stranger with a needle, and later the stranger finds a note slipped into a pocket — “Welcome to the AIDS club.” The author traces the social nature of rumors as problem solving tools, a way for “groups to arriv at explanations of poorly understood events.”
Whether the anonymous needle-stickings actually happened is somewhat irrelevant — the author’s point is that if folks believe they happened then such events fit their explanatory model of social, political, and individual relations within Indonesia, and this is why the rumor is accepted. Although it may not be true, it indicates the observer something about what is going on in society that would lead many people to believe it could be true. Within just a few paragraphs of developing this thesis the author makes the above statement about HIV rumors within the black community in the US.
Those with any level of historical knowledge related to oppression of people of color within the US won’t find it hard to understand why a rumor like this might persist; from the Tuskeegee experiments, to injecting unwitting subjects with plutonium, to birth control programs designed to stop people of color from breeding, to egregiously disproportionate sentencing guidelines, to medical experimentation within prisons, to historical Jim Crow (as well as the New Jim Crow), it’s not hard to see why being black in America might necessitate a bit of paranoia.
What I find interesting is that the article in question doesn’t really make much room to speak to the reasoning behind believing such a rumor. And, to whatever extent articles such as this and others do, they often invoke colonialism, slavery, and other distant historical events as contextual signifiers for our analysis. Although slavery and colonialism cannot be overlooked, it’s important to note that there are very relevant contemporary contextual clues to helps us situate these rumors.
In the same year the “AIDS rumors” article was published, the New York Times ran a story on the thought experiment of viewing black America as a nation,
If black America were a country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with the AIDS virus … Nearly 600,000 African-Americans are living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and up to 30,000 are becoming infected each year. When adjusted for age, their death rate is two and a half times that of infected whites, the report said. Partly as a result, the hypothetical nation of black America would rank below 104 other countries in life expectancy.
The Black AIDS Institute took note of that program in criticizing the administration’s efforts at home. The group said that more black Americans were living with the AIDS virus than the infected populations in Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Namibia, Rwanda or Vietnam — 7 of the 15 countries that receive support from the administration’s anti-AIDS program.
I find it relevant to consider historical forces of oppression, but I find it equally relevant to consider contemporary actors and events. It’s worth noting that at the same time former president Bush was creating PEPFAR, a vast number of Americans (particularly black Americans) were living with or becoming infected with HIV, and little attention was or is paid to this. In trying to verify some of these numbers on the CDC’s web site I managed to find broken links, which indicates how many people must be seeking this information — it’s not enough that it’s buried on the CDC’s site, but in fact no one has even noticed the links were formatted incorrectly.
It’s important to note health inequities and work for justice, but that means noticing inequities both globally and at home. If some black Americans believe in a government-led conspiracy to allow HIV to kill minority populations, given the data above, is this view all that hard to understand?