Do African Americans Trust the U.S. Government?

Hope and change.

Those were the two promises of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. His presidency seems like a distant memory, almost a wishful dream, even as he fought during his tenure to deliver the same hope and change promised during his time in office. Today, African Americans linger between Trump’s America and a marathon election cycle that begun with two low-polling Black individuals running for president (Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) to the current nominee – Joe Biden. Maybe Harris will help carry the torch of hope?

Hope and change seem too high to reach. Perhaps it is time for candidates and politicians to deliver on one promise: Trust.

African Americans do not trust the government. A study conducted in early February (pre-COVID) by Eyes4Research surveying more than 600 African American registered voters emphasizes this belief.

Results from this study indicate that 53% of respondents feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, while 33% feel it is moving in the right direction. 66% percent claim that presidential candidates are running only for the sake of power. Only 39% say they will vote in the 2020 presidential election. These viewpoints are prevalent even if a majority (38%) feel that their economic situation is better than it was four years ago (22% say it is worse). With this, African Americans distrust the United States government.

Why is that? 

History. In addition to years of slavery and segregation, U.S. governmental entities continuously double-cross and abuse African Americans, making it seemingly impossible to erase endemic cynicism, even with an idealistic, two-term African American president. 

Here are the most striking historical examples:

Tulsa Race Riots

The development of thriving communities for African Americans tend to disappear as quickly as they emerge. This remains the case with the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the wealthiest black community of the early 20th century (also known as Black Wall Street).

This American Dream for African Americans ended in 1921, after a murky, he said/she said incident between a Black shoe shiner and a white woman in an elevator led to the Black man’s arrest for sexual impropriety. This arrest triggered a massive riot by the African American community from May 31 to June 1. 

The authorities came down hard on the rioters, calling in the national guard and air assault. Some reports state that 300 African Americans were killed, with thousands more injured. About 10,000 Black residents were left homeless, and 35 square blocks of the district were destroyed. Like hope and change, Black Wallstreet became a thing of memory, although more of a nightmare for survivors and descendants (even with restitution years later). Some have called the Tulsa Race Riots the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. Though the blame fell on both sides, there remains no excuse to wipe out a thriving community of taxpayers and business owners.

Relevant study finding: 63% surveyed agree to some degree that most politicians do not care about the Black community.

Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a young mother of five, visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital — one of the few medical centers of the 1950s that treated poor African Americans. During her visit, doctors discovered a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. 

Sadly, Lacks did not survive her cancer. However, doctors found that her cells were very different from others collected from individuals with cervical cancer. Instead of dying quickly, Lacks’ cells doubled almost every day. This anomaly is considered a modern science miracle. 

Today, her cells help study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without needing to experiment on human beings. Doctors have also used these cells to test the effects of radiation and poisons, study the human genome, and develop a polio vaccine.

Henrietta Lacks saved countless lives. Why is this a problem?

Until 1975, Lacks’ family was not aware of her superhuman cells. In addition to withholding information from her family, doctors took Lacks’ tissue samples during treatment without her consent, violating her privacy rights. Would this have happened if Lacks had been another skin color? Not likely, considering the egregious violation of Black patients in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Relevant Study Finding: 40% of Black respondents consider themselves Democrat, with 36% identifying as Republican.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Between 1932 and 1972, Tuskegee University in Alabama told African Americans they were receiving free healthcare, and instead involuntarily injected them with syphilis. This study aimed to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis. None were treated with penicillin, even after the antibiotic was successfully proven to treat the disease. 

This horrible experiment ended after 40 years due to a whistleblower. Almost 400 Black men contracted syphilis and never received adequate treatment. Despite reformation in medical ethical practices, the Black population in Alabama remains scarred.

Relevant study finding: 58% of respondents feel that most politicians do not care about Black communities.

The MOVE Massacre

Comparable to the Waco siege of 1993, this instance of government abuse began as a standoff in 1985 between the Philadelphia police and MOVE, a Black liberation group that preached revolution and a return to a natural lifestyle. On May 13, the police department decided to bring the hammer down on the Black separatists, who remained held up in their building. Authorities evacuated the neighborhood and flooded the streets with 500 police officers. Even then, no member of the MOVE group surrendered. Threats were leveled from both sides, resulting in gunfire (all under an atmosphere of continual tears gas, smoke grenades, and water cannons). The MOVE members held steady for almost two hours, so the Philadelphia authorities did the next logical thing.

They dropped a bomb on the MOVE building. Literally.

A helicopter flew over the building and dropped Tovex TR2, a commercial explosive used to dig trenches through rock to lay pipe. This replacement for dynamite had never been employed in urban areas or even on military foes. Witnesses claimed the blast was a large, bright orange ball of fire, while experts said the temperature reached 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Eleven people died from the explosion, including five children. Firefighters stood down as the MOVE building blazed, resulting in 61 nearby houses catching fire. There are reports that the police gunned down MOVE members as they fled the flaming wreckage.

As surreal as this horrible crime was against African Americans, it remains perhaps more surreal that Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode approved this order, despite being Black himself. 

Relevant study finding: 62% of respondents feel that the Democratic Party takes their vote for granted.

It is still astounding that these events happened to American civilians, but it is not mildly surprising that African Americans are distrustful of the government. Beyond these tragedies, which many might not have heard of, many African Americans have fallen victim to a system that continually shows a lack of equality towards minority populations across the country (as shown in Eyes4Research’s police brutality study).

But African Americans do not believe they are all powerless. Eyes4Research’s study found that 68% of respondents feel that their vote makes a difference. The key is for politicians to prove their trust, champion for hope and change, and not call an airstrike when a Black community wants some justice.