A return to the paranoid style in African-American politics
From time to time, something will leap out to me as an illustration of the fact that blacks and whites often inhabit separate realities. I’ve often told the story of the editorial in a black neighborhood newspaper in Philadelphia warning African-Americans to flee urban areas in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential elections because George W. Bush was planning to — this was presented as unquestionable fact – use nuclear weapons against the inner cities to suppress the black vote. This wasn’t somebody ranting on Twitter — this was in print, in a regularly published newspaper that was, in the early days of the 21st century, still a going concern.
I’ve come to call this sort of thing (with apologies to Richard Hofstadter) the paranoid style in African-American politics. Mild versions of conspiracy theories play a large role in mainstream American politics in the form of folk beliefs about how government works, the role of lobbyists and campaign contributions, and the like. For right-wing populists, it’s the “Establishment” and the “donor class,” for left-wingers it’s the Koch brothers, Big Oil, Big Money, Big Bigness, etc. We’ve all heard the story of how we could be running our automobiles on seawater if not for the fact that the petro-billionaires are suppressing the technology. The closer you get to the fringes, the more prominent the role of conspiracy theories. But it seems to me that conspiracy theory plays an outsize role in mainstream African-American political discourse.
The things people will believe astonish me. My wife has a son who convinced her (among many similarly silly things) that simply placing a small cactus near my computer screen will protect me from radiation. Don’t ask.