AMONG the saddest legacies of America's tortured racial history is the distrust many African-Americans continue to harbor about medical research and HIV. According to a recent study by Oregon State University, 15 percent of blacks surveyed believe the AIDS virus is a form of genocide against black people.
Though there is no evidence that American scientists conspired to do such a thing two decades ago when HIV first morphed into a public health disaster that disproportionately affected gay men, it is widely believed by blacks today that the Tuskegee experiment of 1931-75 established a grim precedent for lab-controlled genocide.
While the Tuskegee experiment conducted among syphilitic black men ranks among the darkest chapters in American history, to call it the result of a self-conscious policy to eradicate the African-American population is a stretch and an obscene one at that.
One can agree that black life has been terribly devalued in American history without subscribing to conspiracy theories that HIV was produced in a lab. The tragedy and scope of the disease are too immense to be contained by racial paranoia.
The AIDS scourge has killed hundreds of thousands of people from every racial group. Millions have died from contracting the disease over two decades. The belief that HIV is specifically targeted toward blacks or any other ethnic group is narcissistic and delusional.
When fatalism becomes an urban consensus, the result is a compound tragedy. Irrational belief about the origin of AIDS is affecting black behavior when it comes to sensible preventive practices. Why do anything to slow the progress of the plague, or so the thinking goes, if the group has been targeted by sinister forces anyway? The refusal to use condoms and clean needles or to alter unsafe sexual practices has made blacks all over the world disproportionately vulnerable to the disease.
This is one of those situations in which what one believes about the disease can be as deadly as the disease itself.