A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an occurrence or an event that rejects the standard explanation and instead credits an influential organization, group, entity or person for its undercover orchestration. What makes it a conspiracy is the covert, unlawful nature of its conception. What makes it a theory is the uncertainty of its occurrence as theorized. The formation of conspiracy theories are a regular component of human curiosity, if you can believe that. Psychologists argue that finding simple answers to otherwise unanswerable questions is at the core of our sense of stability, in doing so we establish a casual congruence with the outside world. And ever since the internet turned us on to fake news, anything constitutes conspiracy and anyone curious enough, a theorist.
Some conspiracies have stood the test of time, like the one circulated about the 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 36th president of the United States. On the afternoon of November 22nd, the presidential motorcade left Dallas Love Field Airport and traveled its scheduled 10-mile route through Downtown Dallas and on to Trade Mart where the President was scheduled to speak at a luncheon. The open-top 1961 Lincoln limousine carrying the President, along with Mrs. Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and wife, Nellie, made its way through the crowded streets of Dealey Plaza, making a left turn onto Elm Street and passing by the Texas School Book Depository.
Suddenly, a series of shots rang out. A barrage of bullets barreled towards the Lincoln limousine, striking the president’s head and neck, the governor’s back. The President would be pronounced dead at 1:00pm at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Less than two hours after the shooting, Dallas Police would arrest Louisiana born Dallas resident, Lee Harvey Oswald for his death.
The conspiracy theorists that challenge the historic account of the Kennedy assassination rest their rationale upon the implausibility of an event of this magnitude being mapped out by a single man, and to their credit, they have a point. The release of the 1964 Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy led to the declassification of countless materials that moved many mourners to challenge the official account of events. After a 10-month long investigation, the report concluded that Oswald, acting alone, shot three times at the moving vehicle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, which contradicted some witness accounts of multiple shots fired from multiple directions.
Not to mention the Commission’s introduction of a single-bullet theory to support its single-shooter supposition, which left self-proclaimed gun gurus perplexed by the suggestion that a single bullet had the power to pierce through the two politicians, for the record, it does. But overtime, the casual culture of distrust demonstrated in our dealings with the American government mixed with the unlikelihood of an unassuming citizen both planning and performing the assassination of a beloved American president, left the majority of Americans with their own counterarguments. And perhaps righteously so.
It’s during childhood that our brains are programmed to prefer predictability. From preschool to prom, the first year of college to the first internship, nothing is new under the sun, and we like it like that. We manifest manuals dedicated to managing our expectations, making new and unknown experiences suddenly seem safe and familiar. We want new restaurants to provide experiences similar to the ones prior, we want seasons that abide by the strict predictions we set for them, we like to know what’s coming before it comes, and when it comes, we like to feel like we saw it coming. It is our human adaptation to want to prepare for the otherwise unpreparable, it is not unexpectedness that unnerves us, it is improbability.
When the details surrounding reality seem impractical or implausible, we turn to other outlets for explanations, and we do so with the understanding that things aren’t always as the powerful would have them perceived. We’re all susceptible to our own skepticism, still certain populations have proven more susceptible to conspiracy than others. Take Americans for example, a group who tend to be far more suspicious of their political systems than the average global citizen, a group with a deep-rooted sense of distrust built into the basis on which their country was founded. One poll found nearly 80% of Americans believed in at least one unscientifically proven idea, like the theory of a flat earth for example. A third of participants admitted to believing in at least one conspiracy theory, spanning concepts from the Illuminati to poisonous chemtrails. And the majority admitted to feeling that the American government had fed fiction to citizens in place of fact on at least one occasion, because technically, it has.
We may not all be conspiracy theorists, but conspiracy is undoubtedly a part of our American culture. In September of 2019, the local Lincoln County sheriff’s department estimated upwards of 30,000 people planned to attend a raid of Area 51, a highly classified Nevada-based United States Air Force facility rumored to house the remains of a wrecked UFO spacecraft, along with evidence of alien life. It’s almost un-American to automatically accept the establishments’ account of events. From rumors of rigged elections to earthquakes made by a machine, America has no shortage of suspicious citizens. Many of whom call the Black community home.
It’s no secret that Black Americans have long felt discriminated against by the systemic inequities nursed in this nation. And we don’t have to look hard or far to find factual evidence of corruption and conspiracy as it pertains to the global and domestic treatment of black people. Quite frankly, conspiracy is often the only way to explain these unacknowledged discrepancies. For instance, the historical presence of medical malpractice and mistreatment based on disparities rooted in race has led many African Americans to adopt a distrust of modern medicine. Which is unfortunate considering that most of what we know about modern medicine was amassed over our dead bodies. Nonetheless, this distrust, while jokingly acknowledged, is very tangibly felt. The evidence of this distrust is demonstrated in our decisions, in our dialogues, all throughout our day to day. And they only highlight the honest reality, that large numbers of African Americans avoid both routine and life-saving health check-ups and medical procedures out of concern for collusion.
Well-earned concern, mind-you. Lest we forget about not so theoretical conspiracies such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where 600 Black American men, 399 with latent syphilis and a negative control group of 201, were deceived into participating in a forty-year-long human subject study that sought to document the untreated stages of the disease. This intentional tragedy further fanned the fear that public health officials in this country would keep Black citizens in sickness in order to profit from their suffrage. And by the time Jean Heller of the Associated Press broke the story in July of 1972, over 128 of the victims had succumb to syphilis or syphilis related complications, 40 spouses had been diagnosed with syphilis, and 19 children were born testing positive for the disease. All the proof we need that victimhood runs through our veins.
Their stories are a morsel of many. From 1946 to 1948, the United States sponsored medical studies in Guatemala, intentionally infecting nearly 700 unsuspecting men and women with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in order to test the effectiveness of penicillin. Only after the lead researcher in charge, American Dr. John Cutler, died in 2003, were these records uncovered by the same historian researching Cutler’s involvement in the Tuskegee Experiment. Upon sharing these findings with the United States government in 2010, President Barack Obama would issue an apology to the Guatemalan government acknowledging the involvement of the American administration. The repeated use of government-funded functions to carry out state-sanctioned acts of discrimination against Black communities and other communities of color has created an atmosphere whereby it’s easier to assume collusion than it is to accept coincidence, particularly in the face of familiar occurrences.
It’s not just the historical confirmation of conspiracy that keeps us speculating, the injuries endured as a result of those infractions have haunted the halls of our history for quite some time. And just like our physical wounds leave behind scarring, our psychological surfaces are marred by the mental scarring that accompanies those memories. One symptom of that psychological scarring is an excessive preoccupation with conspiracy and the presence of corruption.
It’s safe to say that when it comes to the dissemination of information throughout the African American community, the preferred mediums haven’t always been the most impartial. And when people are constantly lied to and treated with intellectual dismissal, to the point that it impedes their ability to live their lives in peace and progress, it’s only natural for them to call bullshit. Black people have called America on her crookedness, but have we done so to our own detriment. Perhaps we’ve grown so accustomed to being wronged, that it’s almost become a source of comfort. Which would explain why these conspiracies amass such strong attachments in the first place, despite their lack of intelligible evidence.
Conspiracy theories gift the theorist with something the truth cannot, I suppose, a sense of control. They afford people who feel otherwise powerless, a sense of empowerment. People who frequently default to conspiracies find safety and stability in what they believe to be their ability to identify and reject further attempts at deception. They may even begin to consider themselves more in-the-know or knowledgeable than peers who accept conventional conjecture at face value, especially given the historical context of the relationship between African Americans and, well, just about everybody else.
These theories are just as much a byproduct of antiquity as they are of anxiety. So much so that one study cited a lack of sociopolitical control and psychological empowerment as being at the forefront of our conspiracy fixations, indicating that these conspiracies are both a symptom of and a pseudo cure for our orchestrated ostracism and the systemic absence of our autonomy. But when these theories get in the way of our ability to decipher fact from fable, or think rationally and independently, or cause us to reject traditionally peer-checked and academically supported conclusions based solely on socially fanned suspicion, we have a much bigger problem than the discovery of some secret political ploy.
We’ve seen this problem before. We saw it actualize into the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, a 20-year crisis sustained by the spread of misinformation that cost almost 500,000 Americans their lives. We watched as conspiracy captivated entire communities with myths and mistruths about monkey to man transmission, biological warfare, and a ploy to turn everyone pansexual, all while reality slithered through our streets, leaving disease and devastation behind. We’re seeing it now, as so many of us turn to pseudoscience to make sense of the ongoing global pandemic, resorting to unreliable resources for real life guidance while challenging any rhetoric that doesn’t align with our conspiracy-centered conclusions.
First, we used faux immunology to argue our immunity to the virus. And when that didn’t hold up, we transitioned to technology, arguing that cell phone towers had unified the elite so much that they were willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone else just to have them erected. And when people got tired of warning the world about the dangers of 5G from the comfort of their 4G devices, looking up to find their friends, family members and relatives reeling from the realities of the virus, they convinced themselves it was all thanks to the man, the White man, that is.
And perhaps for the most part it is. It’s not a coincidence that nearly 15 million of the roughly 40 million African Americans in this country get their insurance coverage through Medicaid. It’s not a coincidence that African Americans have higher rates of lung disease, obesity, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, all conditions that make people more susceptible to respiratory complications, the very thing that makes this virus so vicious. It is not a coincidence that African Americans are more likely to work poverty-level wage jobs than other workers, be uninsured, and live in communities that lack adequate health-care options. It’s safe to say all of this is by some systemic design, some organizational orchestration, history tells us there is nothing theoretical about that. But Covid-19’s ability to exploit that overexposure is no conspiracy at all, it’s simply one of the many consequences.
This isn’t about eating better for Big Mama, as United States Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, so eloquently implied. It’s silly to suggest that the solution to our heightened vulnerability to victimization is as simple as eating right and exercising. Even the best diet does little to stop state-sanctioned violence. It’s about recognizing our heightened vulnerability to victimization and avoiding decisions that victimize us further, else we become complicit to our own victimization. Conspiracy theories, when left to smother our common sense, impede our ability to apply sound mind to unforeseeable situations, and life is full of those. It’s not impractical to view the infrastructure of the American establishment with skepticism. In fact, it would be foolish not to. But we must consider that society has made some strides, many of which by the sweat of our brow. We’re not completely out of the dark ages as it pertains to systemic unfairness, but we’re a long way from having to treat grandma’s arthritis with home remedies.