African Americans Confront a Pandemic: Assessing Community Impact, Organization, and Advocacy in the Second Decade of AIDS

Article excerpt


Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the recognition of a new pandemic called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Over time, the landscape of AIDS policy, politics, research, and epidemiology have shifted dramatically to engulf individuals, communities, states and nations in a battle to ward off mass destruction resulting from the spread of AIDS. Despite growing attention to the issue, solutions for curbing the spread of AIDS have largely been elusive.

The progression of the disease in the U.S. is similar to its evolution in the world: Black and brown people are disproportionately the sufferers of the AIDS epidemic. While an analysis of the global implications of AIDS on poor nations of color is an important and necessary undertaking, this essay will maintain a narrow analytical lens in considering the plight of people of African descent living in the United States of America It is the hope that this will illuminate community processes that could prove useful in efforts to mobilize individuals and communities elsewhere.


Since the beginning of the epidemic, the politics and policies that developed in reaction to the AIDS scourge have been rooted in the unique experiences of America's gay community. Overwhelmingly white and male, the vocal gay community responded to the early threat of AIDS by mobilizing and using political muscle to marshal federal, state, and local resources. Their remarkable achievements in battling the ravages of a mystifying disease should not be minimized-the more so because they simultaneously had to fight a widespread social stigma and blatant discrimination in order to bring the devastation of AIDS in their communities to national and international attention. Their early dominance and success, however, have influenced the content and shape of the political processes surrounding the distribution of AIDS resources to such an extent that it has had a crowding-out effect on other groups who have also been severely affected by the epidemic.

Unbeknownst to many, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. Early surveillance data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that black Americans were among the first cases of AIDS in America and that their rate of infection was disproportionate to their representation in the general population. Unlike the white gay community, however, the black community failed to formulate a coordinated early response to the epidemic for a variety of reasons that were rooted in the campaign of misinformation about risk categories and transmission that surrounded AIDS in its early years, and in socio-cultural biases that colored attitudes toward people affected by the disease, as well as in depressed socio-economic conditions that made it difficult to discern the gravity of a new threat amidst other pressing concerns.1 The salience of this last point cannot be ignored. In the 1980s, the crack-cocaine epidemic, a dramatic spike in drug-related crime activity, massive unemployment, and the hostile posture and punitive policies of the Reagan/Bush administration consumed African-American communities. The impact of these and other factors diminished their capacity to recognize the spread of AIDS and to formulate an appropriate response.

The second decade of AIDS would bring new concerns to the fore as epidemiologists and the mainstream news media brought heightened attention to the growing devastation created by HIV and AIDS in communities of color. Since 1994, African Americans have outpaced other groups in new cases of HIV/AIDS. Although only 12 percent of the population, African Americans represent 38 percent of all AIDS cases reported in the United States. In 2000, more African Americans were reported with AIDS than any other racial and ethnic group. Indeed, 63 percent of all women and 65 percent of all children reported with AIDS in 2000 were African American. …