Let’s talk about conspiracy theories.
As COVID-19 cripples the world, so spreads some pretty outlandish ideas about the virus—its origin, who’s it set out to target and its mode of transmission. These beliefs are unproven, caused by uncertainty and amplified on social media.
Conspiracy theories attempt to “explain an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.” Scholars say (pdf) that conspiracy theories tend to have a long shelf life, though there is no concrete evidence to prove that they are true. You all might have heard of some fairly popular conspiracy theories from the past: Churches Fried Chicken is owned by the KKK; Tupac is still alive; AIDS was created and used as a form of genocide by the government; that levees were bombed during Hurricane Katrina; or that the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X were meticulously plotted by the government and not the work of lone wolves.
In this episode of Unpack That, I spoke with Professor Patricia A. Turner, who is a senior dean and vice provost, as well as a folklorist of African American Studies at UCLA. Turner is also the author of, I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. She says that conspiracy theories have been prominent in the African-American community (and all communities) from the get-go.
I also chatted with Shayla C. Nunnally, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of Trust in Black America: Race, Discrimination, Politics. The professor has found that in the U.S., the black population has the largest amount of distrust (and increasingly among the Latinx population). Nunnally says that trust, or the lack thereof, depends upon how groups are treated in the larger society.
As long as we have largely unexplained phenomena—pandemics, assassinations, natural disasters—we can expect to have conspiracy theories. But how do we process it all? What ideas do we accept and reject?
“I’m a professor at a research university. So I’m the kind of person who wants evidence—who believes in the scientific community.” Turner continues, “Apply a bit of reason to the circumstance. So you have to you have to step back from the belief and go, let me really think about what would have to happen for this to be true.”
In this episode of Unpack That, we get to root of conspiracy theories in the black community. Watch the entire episode in the video above.