Black America Must Confront AIDS
It's been 25 years since we first learned of a disease that was killing a handful of white, gay men in a few of our nation's largest cities -- a disease that later became known as AIDS. But lulled by media images that portrayed AIDS mainly as a white, gay disease, we looked the other way: Those people weren't our people. AIDS was not our problem. It had not entered our house.
We had our own problems to deal with, so we let those people deal with their problem. But that was a quarter-century ago, and a lot has changed. Now, in 2006, almost 40 million people worldwide have HIV, and 25 million are dead. And most of those who have died and are dying are black. That's not just because of the devastation the pandemic has wreaked upon Africa.
The face of AIDS in the United States is primarily black as well. The majority of new HIV infections here are black, the majority of people who die from AIDS here are black and the people most at risk of contracting this virus in the United States are black. AIDS is now in our house. It's now our problem, and we must come up with solutions.
This week, a historic contingent of black leaders will attend the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto to put AIDS in our community at the top of the national agenda. All of black America must do the same. Every African American must stand with us, take ownership of AIDS and fight this epidemic with every resource we have.
I realize that what we are proposing may seem an overwhelming task. But we know it can be done. When AIDS hit the gay community, its members couldn't afford to wait for the government to save them; instead they worked to save themselves -- in part by using tactics and strategies out of our civil rights playbook. AIDS is a major civil rights issue of our time.
We cannot wait for the government to come and rescue us either -- that help may never come. Part of our response must be to eliminate the rabid homophobia that lives in our schools, our homes and especially our churches. Our inability to talk about sex, and more specifically homosexuality, is the single greatest barrier to the prevention of HIV transmission in our community. Intolerance has driven our gay friends and neighbors into the shadows. Men leading double lives -- on the "down low" -- put our women at extreme risk.
We must also overcome our resistance to safer sex practices that can help prevent the spread of AIDS, and we must ensure that our young people know exactly what AIDS is and how to protect themselves against it.
For black America, the time to deliver is now. We're calling on leaders to lead. The AIDS story in the United States is partly one of a failure to lead. Prominent blacks -- from traditional ministers and civil rights leaders to hip-hop artists and Hollywood celebrities -- must immediately join this national call to action to end the AIDS epidemic in black America.
We're calling on black America to engage in a coordinated campaign with concrete, measurable goals and objectives and real deadlines. Each of us must identify strategies and activities that match our unique niches and capabilities.
We must build a new sense of urgency in black America, so that no one accepts the idea that the presence of HIV and AIDS is inevitable.
We're calling on black America to get informed about the science and facts about AIDS. Knowledge is a powerful weapon in this war.
We're calling on black Americans to get screened and find out their HIV status. I have -- it took 20 minutes and was bloodless and painless. Knowing your HIV status and the status of your partner can save your life.
We're calling for a massive effort to address the disproportionate impact this epidemic is having on black youth, women, injecting drug users and men who have sex with men.
We must also pressure our government and elected officials -- at local, state and national levels -- to be far more responsible partners than they have been. We must lift the federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs, which have been proven to slow the spread of AIDS. We must also work with elected officials to promote comprehensive, age-appropriate, culturally competent AIDS prevention efforts that give young people the tools they need to protect themselves.
We must heed Martin Luther King Jr.'s warning, originally meant for others but right for us now: "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
The writer is a professor at American University and the University of Virginia and chairman of the board of the NAACP.