On June 5, 1981, when the AIDS epidemic first hit, it wasn't very climatic. Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an ambiguous, seemingly harmless two-page report "Pneumocystis Pneumonia—Los Angeles," about a small outbreak of Pneumocystis pneumonia among five young, gay men in Los Angeles. Little did they know that they had stumbled across the AIDS virus, a disease that in the next three decades would kill over 30 million people worldwide.
Looking back, AIDS wasn't characterized as something that African-Americans had to worry about. The media and the medical community labeled this a white gay cancer: Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). (Never mind that there were gay and bisexual African-American men living and dying with the disease as well.)
Much has changed since that time.
Now here we are 30 years later and the face of AIDS resembles ours. AIDS is the number one killer of Black women ages 25–34. Black men who have sex with men (MSM) have the highest HIV rate among all racial groups of MSM. Overall, while African-Americans make up a mere 14 percent of the overall U.S. population, they account for more than half of all new HIV infections that are diagnosed each year. And to make matters worse, African-Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with HIV and AIDS at the same time than any other racial group, meaning they're less likely to get tested until they're very ill.
So what's fueling AIDS in our community? (And no, it isn't the down-low.)
It's a combination of many factors: Poverty and economic instability. Institutionalized racism. Lack of quality health care, poor access to health care in general and mistrust in the medical system. Gender inequality and domestic violence. Homophobia. Intravenous drug use and the lack of needle-exchange programs. Poor health literacy. High rates of incarceration. Untreated sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and gonorrhea, which make people more vulnerable to contracting HIV. And people having unprotected sex while unaware that they are positive and who thus go untreated while they're highly infectious.
The slow response by the federal government has played a role as well, as has a lack of funding. Think about it. Three decades of AIDS and it finally took President Obama to finally released a national HIV/AIDS strategy. It's actually quite shameful.
But it's crucial to point out that our own slow response to the epidemic has had a profound impact. Minus a few exceptions, most Black media publications, churches and community leaders set the tone early by turning a blind eye to HIV, believing that this epidemic was not their problem and that HIV was a moral issue as opposed to a public health crisis. In the end, we have all paid a price for their unwillingness to address the disease early on.
Don't get me wrong: Over the years we have seen some progress in having public conversations about HIV, and the importance of getting tested and practicing safer sex thanks to more campaigns such as Rap It Up and more visible people such as Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe publicly disclosing their HIV status.
But that isn't enough. I still hear current conversations about HIV—especially in the Black media —that are met with resistance, treaded lightly or saturated with inaccuracies (think: everything about the down low).
And as a journalist who has been writing about the AIDS crisis in Black America for the past five years, it still shocks the hell out of me when I interview folks who tell me that they are still forced to eat off paper plates because those around them are still unaware of how HIV is contracted. Or how they are turned away from their church or rejected by loved ones and friends. I still come across people who don't really know what HIV is, who believe wholeheartedly that AIDS is a government conspiracy to kill Black folks, or who believe that they are not at risk for HIV because their sexual partner is not a gay man.
The culture of ignorance, stigma, silence and fear is very real, and it is wiping us out.
As we commemorate 30 years of the AIDS epidemic, I hope that we also can reflect on our mistakes and move forward to make better choices about our own lives, but also about how we educate each other about this epidemic. Because if we don't, we will continue to pay for it with our lives.
(Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)