It's time black groups took AIDS out of the closet

July 19, 1998|By Paul Delaney

THERE IS a tragic madness about in the black community revolving around AIDS. While we do nothing or, more fairly, the minimum, among ourselves, the disease is streaking unchecked through our neighborhoods. The inactivity is more than your ordinary head-in-the-sand, see-no-evil disposition of the unlettered and the ignorant: None of us is unaware.

There is an explanation for our pusillanimous response to such a scourge, a good part attributed to our imbalanced history in the Americas. We are a community so beaten down, so embattled that we sometimes appear immune to what is before our very eyes, as if simply acknowledging the truth will further imprison us.

We're generally impoverished, yet some of us are rich. We're expected to solve the problems of the ghetto, but are confused as to what to do. (That is a mighty burden on us.) However, a plausible explanation does not excuse or justify the attitudes.

The substance of the issue was dealt with in a recent front-page article in the New York Times, noting that as AIDS ravages the black community, it is effectively ignored by major black institutions, churches and civil rights organizations in particular. The story repeated the startling statistics that should have African Americans up in arms: We make up some 57 percent of new infections of the virus that causes AIDS; for those ages 13 to 24, blacks comprise 63 percent of those infected; and, it is the leading cause of death among blacks from ages 23 to 44.

Instead of being in front of the charge for drastic, even revolutionary, action, black leaders are virtually silent or speak in whispers and rhetoric.

Harvard report

Last fall, the Harvard AIDS Institute issued a highly critical statement on black organizational leadership that reflected the frustration of those seriously in the battle.

"Sadly, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Urban League and the NAACP have demonstrated little leadership on AIDS over the past year," the institute charged. "On the federal, state and local levels, community-based organizations are not receiving their fair share of support. Our appointed leaders are sadly absent from important health-policy debates. We continue to need voices and leadership."

To me, at least, muteness and quiescence by people who should be kicking and screaming about such a life-and-death issue would be comparable to the heads of the major rights organizations saying, "no comment," in 1963 to the brutality at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., which they did not do, of course. The enormity of their negligence was in evidence by the failure to have AIDS as a major topic of past annual conventions of the NAACP and the National Urban League.

This past week, the NAACP did hastily include on its convention agenda a march through the black community in Atlanta, apparently in response to the New York Times article. However, the march was conducted in the early morning hours on virtually deserted streets.

The Congressional Black Caucus has become more involved and a small religious group, the National Summit on Sexuality, has been vocal. The new NAACP chairman, Julian Bond, and Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., have been active for some time, while the largest and oldest rights group has issued proclamations and taken strong verbal stands. As the Harvard Institute noted, however, local leadership, as well as expertise, is sorely lacking, and in need of a boost and support from major voices.

But ominously quiet is the bulk of religious, business and community leaders. The irony is, nearly every one of us is acquainted with somebody who is affected or knows someone who is. A survey of black people by the Kaiser Family Foundation bears this out: 56 percent said AIDS "is a very serious problem" for people they know, 52 percent said it is the nation's leading health problem and half of those polled know someone who has the virus or has died from AIDS.

A gay man's disease

Getting mainstream leaders and the rank-and-file involved is tough. The prevailing belief by many African Americans is that AIDS is a white, gay men's disease. Many blacks have problems confronting homosexuality honestly in the community. A lot of our youngsters most in jeopardy are endowed with that youthful but nowadays deadly wrong feeling that they are invulnerable -- some of our youth possess an even more dangerous attitude of not caring.

In addition, there is bad history of white medicine and science handling non-white patients. Remember Tuskegee syphilis experiments? And, some in the community associate AIDS with drug use, ignoring the sexual and heterosexual contexts.

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