The AIDS crisis among blacks

July 09, 1998|By Clarence Lusane

ALTHOUGH the HIV/AIDS crisis in the black community has become titanic, too many African-American leaders continue to ignore the warning signs.

But denial has its consequences. The refusal to address the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in the black community has resulted in an escalating health disaster.

AIDS -- not cancer or homicide or car accidents -- is the leading killer of African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44, according to recent figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the incidence of HIV infection among whites has dropped sharply, it continues to rise among African Americans, who are 57 percent of all new cases. Young blacks, ages 13 to 24, represent a whopping 63 percent of all new cases for that age group. Black women make up 56 percent of all women who have AIDS, even though African Americans are only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Pointing fingers

There is plenty of blame to go around. The government doesn't provide enough money for AIDS prevention programs aimed at minority communities. Media reports and conservative commentators stigmatize certain groups -- gays, drug addicts -- with supposedly low morals -- as HIV transmitters. White AIDS activists are sometimes leery of working with African Americans. Education campaigns aimed at African Americans have been criticized by some black health professionals as racist, sexist and reflective of the perspectives of outsiders. So it's critical that black leaders take the lead in fighting this epidemic.

Fortunately, the Congressional Black Caucus has recently stepped forward and requested that the Clinton administration declare a "public health emergency" regarding the HIV/AIDS DTC epidemic among African Americans. The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, stated forcefully, "Enough is enough. . . . This is a national crisis. We will not rest until the crisis is acknowledged and strategies and resources are directed to eliminate it."

The Congressional Black Caucus has also played host to a gathering of 20 national AIDS experts who have identified a number of problems associated with the current outreach and prevention efforts of the AIDS health-care community.

"There is a need to integrate substance abuse with HIV prevention and care," the group noted. It also said, "There is currently no strategy to deal with HIV-infected prison populations either inside of prison or after they are discharged."

Most civil-rights and black church leaders, however, continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to AIDS. Perhaps this is a result of their erroneous assumption that AIDS is a gay disease. Perhaps this is because of their unwillingness to grapple with intravenous drug use. Or perhaps it's that middle-class leaderssimply want to avoid dealing with constituencies that are controversial: drug addicts, gays, the poor, ex-convicts and other groups that are seen as the major conduits of HIV into the black community.

Myths about AIDS run deep among some African Americans. Studies show that perhaps a quarter of African Americans believe that AIDS was specifically created to eliminate blacks. Many African Americans also hold that only male homosexuals are at risk, and that black women are safe from the disease. These notions hinder the effectiveness of AIDS prevention strategies and education.

We don't need a "war on AIDS" similar to the ruinous "war on drugs." Nor will a "dialogue" on AIDS be sufficient. What is required is a sense of urgency within the black community and in the nation as a whole.

Steps to take

Here are some effective steps that can be taken right now: a massive education program, funding for those who can't afford the new drugs that inhibit AIDS, funding for needle-exchange programs and a specific focus on black women and young people, who are the fastest growing victims of this crisis.

Anything less than a full-blown effort will result in a calamity not only for African Americans, but also for the entire country.

Clarence Lusane is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington. He's the author of "Race in the Global Era: African Americans at the Millennium" (South End Press, 1997).

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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