ATLANTA - Black Americans represent only 12 percent of the population, but we account for more than half of all new cases of HIV/AIDS. That frightening fact was one of the headline statistics to emerge from a conference in Atlanta last week held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The highest rate of infection in the country occurs among bisexual black men. And that has implications for black women, who are 19 times more likely to be infected than white women. That's because so many black men have unprotected sex with other men but then conceal that fact and have unprotected sex with women, too.
Yet there has been little activity that would suggest a crisis, especially among those activists who can usually be counted on to draw attention to the suffering of black Americans. Where are the rallies and town hall meetings, the urgent press conferences, the demands for more money for research and prevention? The usual suspects - the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the leadership of the NAACP - have had little to say about a plague spreading like wildfire.
Perhaps that's because they'd have to aim their criticism within, not just at the irresponsible sexual behavior that spreads HIV, but also at the demoralizing prejudice against gays that shares the blame.
Black Americans harbor a profound homophobia that assists the spread of HIV by driving men to have sex with other men "on the down low."
Of course, white America shares that prejudice. You only have to recall the outing of former New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey to remember that some gay white men also engage in surreptitious gay sex and expose their wives and girlfriends to HIV. But black Americans are far more vulnerable in so many ways - including access to health care - that homophobia does more damage.
Some sociologists and other observers believe that gay or bisexual black men are more afraid to come out of the closet than whites because they already face racial discrimination and are reluctant to take on the added burden of homophobia. After all, they'd face that in their own homes and churches.
E. Lynn Harris, author of a series of spicy novels about black men who secretly have sex with other men, wrote in Essence magazine: "The truth is that most brothers who are attracted to men are desperately afraid of revealing it. ... Many ... fear that ... they'll be drummed out of their families, destroying their only safe haven in an already unwelcoming society."
Though AIDS researchers have suspected for years that a culture of clandestine gay sex was helping to fuel the epidemic, the "down low" syndrome has only recently become widely known. Last year, J. L. King wrote a book - On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of `Straight' Black Men Who Sleep with Men - about his secret life. And Essence has published several pieces about the down-low phenomenon.
But those revelations have produced more recriminations than introspection. Some Essence letter writers were furious that the magazine dared broach the subject.
"A brother writes a book and goes on Oprah warning sisters about men who are infecting them with AIDS. This is pointing fingers at black men, who aren't the only people living on the down low," wrote one. Another said: "How dare you print an article shaming our people? [The article] misrepresented the black male, and [it] was repulsive and ignorant."
The gay-bashing from black clergy continues unabated as well. In December, a black Atlanta minister, Eddie Long, staged a march to highlight his opposition to gay marriage. He attracted thousands of black marchers, including Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (By contrast, his widow, Coretta Scott King, has been among the rare voices condemning black homophobia.)
Fear. Hatred. Secrets and lies. That's the sort of climate in which HIV thrives.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.