Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Tuskegee deception aimed at whom?

Jerry Stratton, August 2, 2005

My Self-Defense Tuskegee article is part of a High School program that teaches students to analyze news and opinion. I’ve never seen the entire program, but it seems like a great idea:

Instead of looking at the Tuskegee Study and saying, "That was bad," if we are to really learn from the experience and avoid things like it in the future, we must be clear about what made the Tuskegee Study so tragic.

That sentence sums up why I wrote that article in 1997.

The Tuskegee WebQuest is used by several instructors around the United States and possibly around the world. I often start receiving messages from students during late spring. Most of the emails are well-written, and when the program started several years ago, I tried to respond to all of the messages that came in. More recently this has become too time-consuming. I apologize to any of the students reading this, but the Tuskegee Study WebQuest appears to be very popular. I receive a lot of messages about it, and don’t have time to respond to them. Even this article is about two months late.

Once in a while, however, I get a message intriguing enough or interesting enough that I need to respond. A student in New Jersey recently wrote saying that while a racial bias clearly draws similarities between the two events, there are some major differences. The biggest difference is that, even though deception was evident in both cases, the deception was a lot stronger for the Tuskegee study. The participants in that study were completely unaware of what was really going on. But poor people affected by laws against affordable firearms see through the deception. They know that these laws target them.

That’s a very important point.

First, I agree that there are many differences between Tuskegee study and laws against affordable firearms. My biggest concern when I wrote that article was that most of the reports coming out during that time period were about how horrible things “used to be”, without considering similarities to current policies. Gun control happened to be a policy that I was familiar with and cared about. There are others: Driving While Black stops and arrests are another example.

The most important point is that racial bias in social experiments is not a thing of the past. It still exists. Most of the time, however, I suspect that the targets of such racist policies and programs are not the targets of the deception. Despite the deception used by legislators and lobbyists to push laws against affordable firearms, the people the laws are aimed at--the poor--are, as this student suggests, likely well aware of the real purpose of those laws.

Like laws against affordable firearms, the people who are affected by DWB enforcement know about it; most everyone else ignores it or pretends it doesn’t happen. It’s the “everyone else” that the deception is aimed at.

The deceptive reasons for such programs and laws are not for the poor or for blacks; they are aimed at middle-class voters and middle-class firearms owners. The point of the deception is to keep firearms owners from becoming voters, and to keep middle-class voters from recognizing the racial bias in those laws. Or, if they do recognize a racial bias, to appeal to their own class prejudices and agree that poor people shouldn’t own firearms (or should be stopped more often by police, for “statistical reasons”).

I'm not sure that the Tuskegee experimenters would have cared so much if their subjects had some inkling about what was going on; their real concern, I suspect, was that middle class voters not find out. The deception was aimed at the middle class and the rich, rather than at the poor who took part.

It is not uncommon for politicians to say different things and put on different faces depending on who they are talking to. That’s becoming more difficult as the political backstage moves forward, but it still happens. And while one thing to one audience and doing something else to another doesn’t work as often as it used to, it does seem to still work across the comfortable divide: the cultural break between those who are comfortable and those who are not.

We inflict our experiments on those who have the least influence. It is thus the poor who suffer most from our Great Experiments. Whether it is prohibition or gun control, war or poverty, it is the poor whose homes are raided, whose neighborhoods become more crime-ridden, whose homes are seized first, and who first see their liberties disappear.

Shit moves downhill, and bad laws move down the economic hill until they come to rest at the doors of those on the bottom. And then the bad laws pile up higher and higher, until they affect all of us, but by then it is too late to stop them.

In response to The self-defense Tuskegee: Killing the poor with misplaced kindness. President Clinton cries “Never Again”, but that’s just newspeak for “ASAP”.