The Rev. Dr. Wright & Tuskegee

One of the instances of injustice mentioned by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, during which tenure he was Barack Obama's pastor for 20 years, had to do with the "Tuskegee experiment," having to do with the government's program to determine the effects of syphilis on African-American men over a period stretching from about 1932 to 1972. In the 1920s it was observed that the disease was prevalent among 35 percent of those of reproductive-age population.

An aggressive treatment approach was initiated with mercury and bismuth, with a cure-rate less than 30 percent and the treatment requiring months and involving side effects that were toxic, sometimes fatal. The subjects were not infected with the disease by the government but were not significantly therapeutically treated, either, nor were they informed of their status as guinea pigs; rather, they were intentionally misled and the objective was to follow the subjects until they died. By any standard, this was inhumane, totally reprehensible.

In 1974, after the whistle had been blown publicly about this huge atrocity, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached regarding the victims, and the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services. In 1975, wives, widows and offspring were added to the program and in 1995 the program was expanded to include health as well as medical benefits. Inevitably, wives and children also suffered the ravages of the disease because they and the subjects were kept in the dark.

Wright had justification for calling attention to this injustice, though his assertions that the government has consciously afflicted African Americans with HIV/AIDS, apparently in order to get rid of them, is totally without foundation, just as any assertion that the government infected the Tuskegee victims would have been. As it was, the Tuskegee matter was bad enough, not much removed from Hitler's scientists working their experiments upon the Jews during the World War II era.

Wright's objective in much of his ranting, including the references to slavery, Hiroshima and Nagasaki (white Americans as mass murderers) and the current rule of white supremacists, is to lay a guilt trip on white Americans and therefore demand some sort of reparations for slavery. It is notable that the Tuskegee reparations as well as those to the Japanese interned in this country during WWII were made well within the generations of the afflicted by the government immediately responsible for the damages. This was not the case with post-Civil War slavery, so there is no comparison there. No one living now or even in recent times has or had anything to do with slavery.

Regarding guilt, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, has this in its timeline concerning the Tuskegee matter:

"1932: Follow-up effort organized into study of 399 men with syphilis and 201 without. The men would be given periodic physical assessments and told they were being treated. Motin [president of Tuskegee Institute and an African American] agrees to support study if 'Tuskegee gets its full share of the credit' and black professionals are involved (Dr. Dibble and Nurse Rivers are assigned to study)."

This damning part of the Tuskegee effort is obvious on its face and means just what it says, to wit, that fellow African Americans were part of the atrocious process and actually wanted recognition for their part in this inhumane treatment, something which the Rev. Dr. Wright has probably never mentioned. This goes to the point regarding slavery with regard to its initiation, to wit, that blacks in Africa sold fellow blacks to slave-traders. The victims just happened to be the losers in tribal fights. The notion that the traders went off into the jungles to capture slaves is too far-fetched to even consider. They probably wouldn't have lasted a month.

This is another item from the CDC timeline: "1962: Beginning in 1947, 127 black medical students are rotated through unit doing the study." This is hard to believe. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, part of which is: "I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism." The very effort through which these young black doctors-to-be were "rotated" gives the lie to this oath. This also points to the fact that free African Americans in the pre-Civil War era also owned black slaves.

There's no intention here to form an apologetic for an atrocity that defies understanding; rather, this is simply to suggest that when blame is being assigned, care should be taken to make it an equal-opportunity affair if the facts so demand. It's hard to believe that the Rev. Dr. Wright has not been in possession of these facts. The preponderance of blame may or may not be fairly attached to whites as represented by the government's actions, but the complicity of well-educated African Americans should not go unnoted.

There's plenty of blame/shame to go around in this matter and both Wright and Barack Obama should take some pain to set the record straight, now that Wright has made the Tuskegee affair so public and Obama has attempted to vindicate him (that "race" speech) vis--vis his unconscionable lies or, as in this case, not telling the whole truth.