Column: Dispatches from Black America
By Phill Wilson
Whether you noticed or not, something happened this week that ought to change your life. It should rank among those lifelong milestones, the ones where you always remember what you were doing when you found out. And no, I’m not talking about Michael Jackson’s acquittal.
On Monday, June 12, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that African Americans represent about half of all people living with HIV in the country. Half! We’re only 13 percent of the population. We already knew three quarters of new female infections are among African American women, who are getting HIV largely through sex.
It gets worse. CDC also revealed a study—the first in a series that the agency hopes will give us unprecedented specifics about the number and nature of HIV infections in America—suggesting that half of all Black homosexual and bisexual men are already positive.
Meanwhile, improvements we once saw among youth are reversing. After declining by 30 percent throughout the 1990s, the number of new HIV infections among young men of all races shot up 41 percent between 1999 and 2003.
For more than two decades now, AIDS activists have rightly asserted that this is not just any other disease. It’s a virus that preys upon the most marginalized in our society. As a result, infection continues to carry great deals of stigma. It is, after all, a sexually transmitted disease, and one that is most likely to affect those who are having anal sex or using drugs.
But on June 12 we entered a new era. We can no longer afford to trifle with the politics of America’s culture wars, whether they come from the left or the right. It is time that everyone, particularly African Americans, take responsibility for this monster’s longevity. Individuals, community organizers and policymakers must all begin to hold themselves accountable.
As individuals, two things are clear. First, every African American who does not know whether he or she is HIV positive or negative has the ability to find out. Free, confidential testing is available in any every part of this country. Go find out your status. Be accountable.
Second, every one of us who know we are HIV positive have the ability to stop the virus’ spread, to not allow ourselves to be a link in the insidious chain. Similarly, everyone who is negative has the ability to stay that way, by taking responsibility for your own health. Be accountable.
The community organizers who have rightly taken the lead in HIV prevention to date must also accept the new reality. We can no longer afford to spend our limited resources on initiatives that just make us all feel good. Our prevention campaigns must be accountable to scientific standards; if we can’t show they work then we need to put our resources into what does.
But accountability doesn’t stop there. Individuals and communities need support in their efforts, and government—at both local and national levels—must be a far more responsible partner than it has been so far.
The White House is pushing a $4 million cut to the CDC’s HIV and STD prevention budget for the coming fiscal year. That comes after two previous years of cutting an already measly budget. This, as Washington prepares to hand out yet another round of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthy.
Meanwhile, religion and politics rather than science continue to guide the federal government’s role in prevention. An early 1990s regulation prevents the CDC from funding any prevention campaign deemed to “promote” sex. Rightwing legislators have repeatedly used the bizarre rule to browbeat any community group trying to develop innovative interventions that speak honestly about what is, I repeat, a sexually transmitted disease.
Washington has also begun shoving aside the school-based comprehensive sex education that has proven effective, in favor of unproven abstinence-only curricula—which forbids any discussion of how to use a condom or avoid STDs once you are sexually active. Politicians must get out of the way and let science rule the day, and we must hold them accountable when they don’t.
We have dithered too long. The awful data the CDC revealed on June 12 is unassailable proof of that fact. So what now? It’s time for all of us to take responsibility for stopping this slaughter.
Phill Wilson is the executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. His monthly column also runs on the NNPA News Service and its website, BlackPressUSA.com.