Tall Tales About Tuskegee

Jonah Goldberg

5/2/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

“Based on this Tuskegee experiment ... I believe our government is capable of doing anything.”

So said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright when asked if he stood by his claim that “the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”

The infamous Tuskegee experiment is the Medusa’s head of black left-wing paranoia. Whenever someone laments the fact that anywhere from 10 percent to 33 percent of African-Americans believe the U.S. government invented AIDS to kill blacks, someone will say, “That’s not so crazy when you consider what happened at Tuskegee.”

But it is crazy. And it’s dishonest.

Wright says the U.S. government “purposely infected African-American men with syphilis.” This is a lie, and no knowledgeable historian says otherwise. And yet, this untruth pops up routinely. In March, CNN commentator Roland Martin defended Wright, saying, “That actually did, indeed, happen.” On Fox News, the allegation has gone unchallenged on “Hannity & Colmes” and “The O’Reilly Factor.” Obery Hendricks, a prominent author and visiting scholar at Princeton University, told O’Reilly “I do know that the government injected syphilis into black men at the Tuskegee Institute. Now we know that the government is capable of doing those things.”

To which O’Reilly responded: “All right. All governments have done bad things in every country.”

True enough. And what the U.S. did at Tuskegee was indeed bad, very bad. But it didn’t do what these people say it did.

So what did happen? In 1932, public health researchers set out to study syphilis, particularly among African-Americans, who had higher infection rates than whites. They recruited 399 black men who already had syphilis. The doctors infected no one. In fact, the patients were selected in the first place because they were tertiary-stage syphilitics who were no longer contagious.

The researchers studied the progress of the disease, without treating it, for 40 years.

Prior to the availability of penicillin in the 1940s and 1950s, the researchers couldn’t have treated the men even if they wanted to. Even after standardized penicillin treatments were available, it wasn’t clear that the patients could have been helped. Some of the doctors believed that treating the decades-long infections would kill the men.

Among scholars who’ve studied Tuskegee, there’s a lot of debate about how much — if any — racism was involved in the experiment. But no one disputes that Tuskegee had nothing whatsoever to do with genocide or even a desire to spread the disease among the black population.

What was bad about the Tuskegee experiment was a callous disregard for the humanity and integrity of the patients. They were told they were getting “treatments” when they were merely being studied. They were lied to, treated as objects rather than citizens. This is even more offensive today, now that we have modern legal and ethical rules about informed consent — rules that did not exist when the study was launched. But it was still wrong.

But the idea that the Tuskegee experiment somehow validates the deranged, paranoid view that the U.S. government created AIDS to murder African-Americans — in one of the most hideously painful, drawn-out and expensive manners imaginable — is a riot of ridiculousness and a maelstrom of mendacity. And yet, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard guilt-ridden white liberals say exactly that. “Considering what we did at Tuskegee,” they opine, “who can blame them for being distrustful of government?”

Well, as a conservative, I have no problem with distrusting government, nor can I fault the descendants of slaves or the victims of Jim Crow for distrusting government more than most.

But why blacks remain the most reliable voters for the party of ever-expanding government power is something of a mystery. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the Tuskegee study, launched under the New Deal, was symptomatic of arrogant liberal government. The study “emerged out of a liberal progressive public health movement concerned about the health and well-being of the African-American population,” writes University of Chicago professor Richard Schweder. He adds: “The study was done with the full knowledge, endorsement and participation of African-American medical professionals, hospitals and research institutes.”

Liberals like to invoke Tuskegee as if it’s solely an indictment of what other people did, proof that we need more progressive government. But Tuskegee was in fact the poisoned fruit of progressive government.

A sick irony is that Jeremiah Wright’s lies, and liberal apologies for them, make it more difficult for government to do the job these people want it to do, starting with helping people with AIDS. But that’s only one of many reasons they should be ashamed.