A Conspiracy of Silence
By Phill Wilson
First Published: 7/18/2005
Ok, I admit it. I've been in denial. AIDS is in fact a conspiracy to kill black people.
I finally realized the truth in June, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that African Americans represent about half of all people living with HIV in the country. We are only 12 percent of the population.
If that fact is not enough to get you thinking, also notice that 69% of new female HIV infections are among African American women and, most horrifying, that a new five-city study found 46% of black gay and bisexual men already infected.
With numbers like that, there's got to be a something fishy going on. The question, however, is whose conspiracy is it?
Following the CDC's announcement of all of this alarming new data, a few activist, including myself, tried to shake black people into realizing that we’ve entered a new era – one which the AIDS epidemic simply cannot be ignored. A handful of news outlets even covered the story. But then... nothing.
To my knowledge, no black media followed-up to jumpstart discussion. No civil rights organizations marched in the streets. No black celebrities sponsored relief concerts. Indeed, there wasn't even a call to action from a black gay organization.
What other than a conspiracy of silence could explain this collective shrug at such terrible information?
Let's put this into perspective. AIDS rates of this magnitude are close to what scientists have called the tipping point, or the stage in an epidemic where it cannot be stopped. As for black gay and bisexual men, nearly 50% is downright genocidal. Look at the hardest hit parts of sub-Saharan Africa: Swaziland, with the highest HIV rate on the planet, has an adult HIV prevalence of nearly 40%, followed by Botswana with 37% and Zimbabwe with 22%. All these countries face decades of stalled economic development, families gutted of entire generations and deep, irreversible tears in the social fabric. And yet, none suffer from infection rates on par with those that the CDC cited among America's black and gay bisexual men.
Sure, the high rates among gay and bisexual men won’t carry the same society-wide ramifications as the rates among all adults in hard-hit African countries. But rationalizations of that sort are exactly what have kept us in denial.
We always find a way to wall off reality by thinking of AIDS as happening to someone else; gays, drug users, Africans. But will we dither until rates among drug-free heterosexuals catch up with Africa? And are we really willing to write off half of our gay and bisexual brothers and sons?
There are many reasons why our community hasn't yet responded to the new CDC data. But maybe a young man I was speaking with recently boiled it down to the bitter essence when he said, "Nobody cares about us -- including us."
Every time a black minister uses his pulpit to spew homophobic bile and we sit in the pews and don’t object, we join the conspiracy. Every time we let an elected official block needle exchange programs, which have been proven to both stop the virus spread among drug users and help get them into drug treatment, we join the conspiracy. Every time we have unprotected sex, we join the conspiracy.
You don't believe HIV causes AIDS? So what? It doesn't hurt us to avoid getting infected. In fact, AIDS prevention measures also protect us from other sexually-transmitted diseases. What if AIDS really was started by a bunch of crazy white scientists in a laboratory? What if one or even all of the AIDS conspiracy theories really is true? Then what?
We still have to survive, that's what.
Here’s how: Starting now, civil rights groups should offer HIV testing at every single major event they hold. They should set, and meet, annual testing goals.
Historically black colleges and universities should make AIDS 101 part of every freshman orientation and sponsor AIDS peer-education programs.
Black churches should adopt black AIDS organizations and collect "love offerings" once a month to donate to those organizations.
Black newspapers and magazines should include HIV/AIDS information in every issue. Black radio stations should run at least one AIDS public-service announcement every day.
And most importantly, you, the individual, should get tested, learn about the latest life-prolonging HIV treatments and get involved with one of the groups trying to stop this epidemic.
Unless and until we are doing everything in our power to stop the devastation HIV/AIDS is causing in our communities, we need not look any further than the nearest mirror to find out why black people are getting infected with HIV and dying from AIDS at greater numbers than anyone else.
We must stop being complicit in our own genocide. We can stop the conspiracy because the conspirators are us.
Phill Wilson is executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. His monthly column is syndicated to Black newspapers through the NNPA News Service.