MAXWELL:  Put the scapegoats out to pasture

10/13/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in selling narcotics in mostly black South Central Los Angeles during the 1980s to finance the Nicaraguan Contras, as the San Jose Mercury News alleges, those responsible should be imprisoned. And even if the allegations prove false, California Rep. Maxine Waters and others should be commended for persuading the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate, because the truth must be ascertained.

All that said, however, this and most other black conspiracy theories should be called what they are: self-destructive traps that are bound in history and perpetuated through scapegoats. For blacks, the ultimate historical scapegoat is slavery, along with its institutionalized legacies.

I must point out from the start, though, that groups other than blacks nurture scapegoats. Miami Cubans burn Fidel Castro in effigy each day; Asian-American citizens remember the U.S. internment camps; white Southerners, especially low-income rural males, instinctively re-enact the Civil War; American Indians have the specter of pioneer savagery.

All groups either succeed or suffer according to how effectively they periodically expel their scapegoats, while taking control of events on terra firma. Although many Miami Cubans are obsessed with Castro, they, nonetheless, dominate most areas of life in Dade County. After being treated like prisoners of war, Asian-Americans now excel in every facet of American society; small pockets of white Southerners let “damned Yankees” influence them, but most lead average lives. While many American Indian groups act as remnants of manifest destiny, many others have used enterprises such as bingo, casinos and cigarettes to save themselves.

And blacks? Far too many of us live squarely in the past, rallying around scapegoats on which to unload our real and imagined problems.

Here, Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, expresses a time-worn view: “Repairing the divide between white America and black America must begin with reparations for slavery. This country has never accepted moral responsibility for either its role in slavery or the devastating effects of slavery on African-Americans. At the heart of the crises afflicting black America today is not welfare, drugs or single mothers but the failure of America to consciously heal the wounds of slavery.”

Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams, who is black, agrees: “The individual unifying cultural memory of black people is the helplessness of living under slavery or in its shadow.”

Such an absorption with grievance prevents rational thought, making us susceptible to the most outrageous conspiracy theory or demagogue. In the book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, University of California African-American Studies professor Patricia Turner writes that _ given real conspiracies like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which scientists withheld treatment to 400 black men _ paranoia has caused many blacks to believe, for instance, that national fried chicken outlets are Ku Klux Klan fronts that add an illegal spice that sterilizes black men.

And when the likes of former Nation of Islam spokesman Khallid Abdul Muhammad and other provocateurs come along, we slobber all over them, easily believing that government and industry are destroying the black community with, among other things, crack and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Paranoid rumors can be beneficial, Turner argues, if they are used to mobilize resistance against economic exploitation and government indifference to black concerns. Moreover, such rumors can be even more beneficial if we examine their implications and ask why we are so easily subjected to them. In other words, we should start using paranoid rumors as a springboard for introspection.

Of all of the places in the United States, why did the CIA _ if the rumor proves true _ dump crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles? Were agents looking for a certain profile? Well, of course. You do not need to be a genius to know that dozens of black drug dealers will _ and do _ kill to sell dope to young black children in South Central L.A.

No, I am not blaming the victim. But I am saying that the victim does not have to sell crack to his own people just because CIA agents make the drug available. Pure greed and a lack of values motivate dope dealers. And black people do not have to buy the CIA’s dope.

Instead of crafting a complex conspiracy theory that leads us away from the truth and instead of nurturing a scapegoat that saps our creative energy, we should be looking inside ourselves, asking hard, uncomfortable questions: Why, for example, are we such easy prey for every vice that comes along? Why do demagogues, devils, crooks and fools single us out? Exactly what kind of values do we possess that make us so attractive?

We need to give honest answers to these and other questions each time we flail at a scapegoat or try to expiate an imagined demon. For the sake of argument, let us say that CIA operatives did bring crack into South Central L.A. in the 1980s. What must we do now? Create more workshops? More congressional investigations? More highly paid speakers with new civil rights careers?

No, we need to come to our senses on the meaning of living in the past and the inevitability of the future. We need to acknowledge the huge role that we play in our own plight, get a grip and then move on. Large numbers of blacks are doing just that. The rest of us need to start listening to them.