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White Conspiracy, Black History

Black Americans have already lived white America's nightmares

On Monday, Donald Trump added to his list of ridiculous statements by telling a crowd of supporters in Ohio that he was "afraid the election's gonna be rigged, I have to be honest." In case anyone thought he misspoke, Trump surrogate Roger Stone alleged the same thing on a radio show a couple of days later, saying that the rigging is probably already under way. This isn't the first time Trump has alleged that parties unknown are conspiring to fix an American presidential election: The night Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump fired off a series of tweets in which he said that the election was, among other things, "a total sham," and called on his followers to "march on Washington and stop this travesty."

Trump is an absurd extremist, but fears that elections are being stolen through voter fraud are mainstream among Republicans and conservatives in general. This is despite the fact that there's no evidence of widespread fraud, much less anything pointing to it being used to swing elections. Incidentally, only a few days before Trump used his special pre-crime goggles to detect signs of rigging in an election that's still three months away, federal courts did find evidence of a systematic attempt to rig elections. The catch is that the targeted group wasn't Republicans: It was black people.

On Friday, a federal court struck down a 2013 North Carolina voting law after finding that Republicans had deliberately designed it to suppress the black (and largely Democratic) vote. The GOP-controlled state legislature had specifically requested data on how voting and registration patterns varied by race, and had then written the law to restrict those actions in ways that disproportionately affected blacks — targeting them, in the judge's words, with "almost surgical precision."

This law, along with similar ones in Wisconsin and Texas, is part of a long history of denying black people the vote by any means necessary. Some of the methods used, like voter intimidation, violence, and straight-up murder, were extralegal. Others, like poll taxes, rigged literacy tests, and whites-only primaries, were codified into law. The civil-rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated some of these tactics, but using the law to disenfranchise black voters has survived into the present by changing forms; now voter suppression looks like racial gerrymandering (in which the boundaries of voting districts are manipulated to minimize black representation), reducing the number of polling places or restricting early voting, and voter ID laws. A modern white conspiracy theory, commonly held by Republicans and used to drive policy, is black history. Whether by coincidence or not, many of the political conspiracies that white people fear in America today have already happened — and continue to happen — to black people.

Long before "they want to take our guns" became a conspiracy theorist trope and a potential cause for a second Civil War, for example, black Americans lost their right to bear arms. (In many cases, they never had that right in the first place.) In 1792, federal law mandated that every eligible man own and care properly for a military-style gun, but state laws forbade even free black men and women from owning so much as ammunition. Nearly 200 years later, the Mulford Act — which banned open carry in the state of California — was aimed squarely at the Black Panthers and heavily supported by both Republicans and the National Rifle Association, 33 years before actor and NRA president Charlton Heston told gun-control advocates that they could pry his weapons from his "cold, dead hands."

Before libertarians and fringe right-wing groups started worrying about the shadowy government forces trying to control and/or experiment on them with chemtrails, the federal government was performing excruciating and fatal medical tests on poor black men with syphilis from 1932 until the mid-1970s, as part of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Not only did the U.S. Public Health Service not tell any of these subjects that they had syphilis, but they deliberately withheld the proper treatment so that they could watch them die. When some of these men were later drafted and then diagnosed by Army and Navy physicians, the government went so far as to try to prevent them from getting treatment from the military.

Perhaps the most famous conservative conspiracy — that dark forces are conspiring with the government to take complete control over people's lives — was just reality for black people on this continent for 250 years. Slavery, that "peculiar institution," shipped nearly 11 million people from West Africa to North America, the Caribbean, and South America. And while the idea that one human being can own another is objectively horrific, some conservatives and paleo-libertarians have posited since the end of Reconstruction that slavery wasn't that bad. Slaves were well fed! Slaves had vibrant family lives! Bill O'Reilly said as much just a week ago. Yet even as these people manage to minimize the misery of slavery, they use it as an analogy for progressive policies they don't like, such as taxation, or the Affordable Care Act, or getting kids vaccinated. For avowed anti-government conservatives, slavery is at once the awful and inevitable end point of liberalism — the total loss of personal freedom — and a quaint, benign institution where "you could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc."

The arch-conspiracy of the right, which animates many Trump supporters, is "white genocide," the idea that the U.S. is promoting policies — either deliberately or passively — that would make white people extinct. Maybe they remember that in the 1800s, in the aftermath of emancipation, social scientists hoped that the "race problem" would solve itself — that the high mortality rates among black Americans would eventually wipe them out. Scientists and policymakers alike used this idea as a rationale for ignoring public health problems in black communities. Today, both state and federal agencies ignored the fact that the water in the majority black city of Flint, Michigan, was contaminated with toxic levels of lead for more than a year.

The anxieties of white conspiratorial fringes, on both left and right, draw from other minorities' history, too. Worries about the government rounding them up and putting them into concentration camps echo Japanese internment; fears about the federal government confiscating land previously held in common are particularly ironic in a country made possible by the ethnic cleansing of Native peoples. It's hard to shake the idea that the paranoid tradition among white people is just them worrying that someone else might grab the controls of a system built on the oppression of people of color in this country, and then turn it on them. If that's the case, they should just relax. Minorities don't want to get even. We just want to get equal.


VMAs 2017