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AIDS Is Not Just a 'White Gay Disease'

Blacks: Fears, myths get in the way of stopping the scourge.

November 12, 1998|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black." E-mail:

The dramatic action by Alameda County officials declaring a state of emergency to get federal funds to combat the soaring rate of AIDS/HIV infection among African Americans shouldn't be a surprise. How else to call attention to the fact that blacks there make up nearly half of those diagnosed with the disease, though they are only 18% of the population?

Alameda County is not the only place devastated by AIDS. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicated about 40% of all AIDS cases in 1996 in the U.S. were African Americans. This comes at a time when AIDS deaths have dropped among whites.

With a health crisis that wreaks this kind of carnage, it shouldn't take a state of emergency to get a rush of aid from state and federal officials. But it did. It's easy to blame uncaring politicians, insensitive health officials, public indifference and, of course, racism for the crisis. If whites were infected with AIDS in the same frightening numbers as blacks, no cost would be spared to stop its spread.

But these usual suspects aren't the only ones to blame for letting this health problem get out of hand. Many African Americans ignored it too. As the death toll rose among African Americans, many black leaders and organizations kept silent or denied that it was a major problem. Too many clung tightly to the myth that AIDS was a "white gay disease."

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and some black writers and rappers called homosexuality a deviant lifestyle that threatens black communities. They relentlessly ridicule black males who don't act like "real" men as "sissies" and "faggots"--mindless name-calling driven by genuine fears concerning masculinity and by deeply held religious beliefs.

From cradle to grave, many blacks have believed and accepted the propaganda that the only real men in American society are white men. In a vain attempt to recapture their denied masculinity, many black men mirrored America's traditional fear and hatred of homosexuality. Many blacks also listened to black ministers condemn any man who dared think about, yearn for or actually engage in the "godless" and "unnatural" act of having a sexual relationship with another man. When that belief was challenged, they would quickly flip to the oft-cited line from the Bible in Leviticus that brands the act of men lying down with men as "the abomination." When pro football star Reggie White caught heavy public flak earlier this year for his reprehensible verbal assault on gays, he justified it with biblical lore, and got a quiet chorus of amens from many blacks.

These myths, lies and stereotypes for too long prevented a frank, rational discussion of AIDS among African Americans. But now that the crisis has imploded within black communities, many blacks are scrambling to take action. The NAACP has launched a crash program of AIDS education. The Congressional Black Caucus pushed President Clinton to add $156 million in federal funds for treatment and prevention programs. Black health professionals say they will make AIDS prevention a top priority. Most important, all major historically black church groups have called for a Black Church Speak-Out on AIDS on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.

This was much too long in coming but it will do more to exorcise the old myths among blacks about AIDS than emergency declarations by public officials.

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