Power, Politics, and HIV/AIDS: An Interview with Cathy J. Cohen

Article excerpt

Cathy J. Cohen, Ph.D., is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. She is the author of The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and the co-editor of Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader (New York University Press, 1997). Dr. Cohen is currently conducting a research project through the Center entitled "African American Youth and Their Empowerment: Sex, Politics, and Culture," which will include a new national survey of young people ages fifteen to twenty-five, culminating into a multifaceted public education campaign.

Mark Canavera of the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy interviewed Cathy J. Cohen on 29 January 2005 at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Ill.


Thank you so much for meeting with me. I wanted to start with a question about The Boundaries of Blackness. (1) What's changed since you published it? Has there been a rise in the visibility of the problem of HIV/AIDS in the African American community? Have the political responses changed?


There's no doubt that there's greater visibility in African American communities in particular around HIV and AIDS and the threat that the pandemic poses to Black and, I would argue, Latino communities. For example, BET's "Rap It Up" public education campaign has been incredibly successful. Evaluations of that program suggest that young people know the words "rap it up," and they have a sense of what it means. The question is, are they wrapping it up, and are they wrapping it up consistently in a way that will provide them with ongoing protection?

On a different note, we have any number of television shows and talk shows that have taken up the issue of the "down-low," the idea that there's some phenomenon unique to African American communities--which I would dispute--where men sleep with men but don't identify as being gay or bisexual. These men also have female partners and are thought to put women at risk because they have sex with these women without telling them that they're also having unprotected sex with men. I'm not suggesting that the phenomenon doesn't exist. We don't know how systemic or how significant it is. The truth is we don't have good data on this issue. The willingness to label this trend the "down-low" and to make it something specific to Black communities really speaks to a history of understanding Black people to have marginal and abnormal sexual appetites and behaviors. So there's an ease almost in attributing this undisciplined sexual behavior to Black communities without the corresponding data that we would expect if we were talking about, for example, White men and their sexual behaviors.

We have, in fact, seen more discussion of HIV and AIDS in Black communities, and that, I think, is a positive thing. The question becomes, What type of response is it eliciting? Are we talking about HIV and AIDS in a manner that is libratory? Are we honestly and accurately talking about sex and the behaviors in which people engage? Are we talking about the differences in power that inform sexual decision making [and] sexual behavior, and exist within any community? While there's greater visibility and at some levels greater mobilization--in particular, from community groups--and while there's more willingness for some Black elected officials to talk about HIV and AIDS both here and in Africa, I'm still not sure we're seeing the most progressive analysis of HIV and AIDS or an understanding of the centrality of HIV and AIDS as a political issue for African American communities. But that just means we have more work to do.


Why do you think there's so much more attention to HIV/AIDS in Africa than in the African American community in the United States?


Many have argued that, because HIV and AIDS seems to be more rooted in African American communities--and clearly African Americans now make up the majority of new cases--it's predictable that the government, the press, and in some cases foundations are less interested in the issue because they are, in fact, less interested in Black people in this country. …


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