Commentary: #BlackLivesMatter and Our Fight to End AIDS

Commentary: #BlackLivesMatter and Our Fight to End AIDS

Feb. 7 is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

Published February 6, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter began as a Facebook conversation between two friends in July 2013 and since then has erupted into a movement that’s captured the attention of the nation and world. Today, Black Lives Matter is more than a hashtag – it’s a call to action in the fight for racial equality, justice and dignity. And part of that fight is changing the future of HIV/AIDS in America.

Black communities, particularly those in the South, remain disproportionately vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At current rates, one in two Black gay men will become HIV positive by the time he is 35. In Black communities across the country, the rate of HIV infections is eight times greater than it is among white communities. And African-Americans account for 44 percent of all HIV infections, despite representing only 12 percent of the population.

These numbers are the unfair consequences of unacceptable circumstances.

                                 | WATCH CELEBRITIES REACT TO #BLACKLIVESMATTER |

African-Americans have a greater likelihood of contracting HIV because historic and current disenfranchisement increases their chances of living where HIV strikes the hardest: communities where poverty and homelessness are rampant, and education and health care are scarce.

We’ve seen this crisis firsthand through our work with My Brother’s Keeper to end HIV/AIDS in Mississippi, where Human Rights Watch estimates that African-Americans are three times more likely than white people to live in poverty. Today, African-Americans account for 78 percent of people who contract the infection in the state — and the percentage of these people receiving care is similar to that in Botswana, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Black Lives Matter is bringing these inequalities into the spotlight, urging us to reflect on the consequences of discrimination and pushing us to recognize the ways in which the value of African-American lives is, implicitly or explicitly, diminished by society. Now it is time for this movement to move us to action.

In Mississippi, the efforts of My Brother’s Keeper in the fight against HIV/AIDS — with support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation — are twofold. On one end, we work to raise awareness in non-Black communities about the consequences of inequality and injustice, and on the other we call on Black communities to challenge the barriers between them and access to health care and other critical services.

We publicly commit to promoting Black people's equal opportunity and well-being by expanding efforts to combat the issues that drive AIDS in Black communities. We commit to responding to needs such as housing and access to safe, nutritious food along with healthcare to help everyone have access to a healthy and productive life.

On National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, on Feb. 7, we’ll have another chance to demonstrate our commitment to Black Lives Matter. Each one of us has a role to play.

The first, and easiest, stand we can take is to get tested ourselves. Too many people are reluctant to test for HIV out of fear or misunderstanding of the infection. But the truth is that receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence — far from it. With treatment, living with HIV/AIDS can mean living a full and healthy life. But the first step is knowing your status — so that through your example, you can encourage others to find out theirs.

We can also all do more to educate our friends, families and local leadership about the realities of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the need to support increased access to treatment and prevention. This is especially important in the South, where many governors are refusing to expand critical Medicaid coverage to those who need it most. 

And, finally, we need to replace stigma with compassion and open our hearts to everyone affected by this crisis, especially those who have been systematically neglected — people struggling with poverty, addiction, homelessness. For too long, we have watched too many people be written off. For too long, society has failed to support the people who need it most — the people who’ve been told they are worth less because of who they are. That has to end with us.

Our dream of an AIDS-free generation is possible only if that dream includes everyone — and only if that dream leaves no one behind. An AIDS free tomorrow starts with working today to turn the tide against the AIDS crisis in African-American communities, demonstrating through our actions as well as our words our belief that Black lives do matter.

Scott Campbell is the executive director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Dr. June Gipson is the president/CEO of My Brother’s Keeper in Mississippi.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: BigFive Images / Getty Images)

Written by June Gipson, My Brothers Keeper, and Scott Campbell, Elton John AIDS Foundation

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