I’ve been trying to get black folks to pay attention to the AIDS epidemic in our community for over twenty years. In the last few months I’ve learned everything I need to know about mobilizing black folk, and I owe it all to Barack Obama.
In October, polls showed that black voters backed Hillary Clinton over Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination by a whopping margin: 57 to 33 percent. But in the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary, exit polls showed more than 80 percent of black voters backed Obama.
So what changed?
According to Bill Schneider, CNN’s senior political analyst, “What appears to have changed is Obama’s electability.” Black people were reluctant to support Sen. Obama because they didn’t think a black man could be elected president and they didn’t want to be disappointed. “Then Obama won Iowa and nearly won New Hampshire. Now they believe,” says Schneider. Obama, of course, has since won South Carolina by a landslide.
We need to believe more than ever and I’m not even talking about believing in a candidate. I’m talking about believing in our own possibilities. I travel all over this country talking to black folks. Whether its race-based performance gaps in schools, mobilizing against HIV/AIDS or participating in our democracy by voting, the answer is often the same: “What difference does it make?” Many of us don’t believe our efforts matter.
In much of black America legal work is scarcer than ever, prison is almost routine. AIDS has become more deadly among blacks and finishing high school is the exception. “In inner cities across the country, more than half of all black men still do not finish high school,” said Gary Orfield, an education expert at Harvard and editor of “Dropouts in America.”
According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, in 2006, nearly one in 20 black men in America were incarcerated—6.5 times the rate of white men. The overall incarceration rate for black women was 3.8 times the rate for white women. According to a 2006 article in The New York Times, in 2004, half of black men in their 20s were jobless.
No matter how you look at it — through the lens of age, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or region of the country where we live — black people bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic in America. Nearly 50 percent of the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS are black. More than 30 percent of the new cases among gay and bisexual men are black. Also, 43 percent of the new cases among men in general, 63 percent of new cases among infants, 67 percent of new cases among women and 70 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases among adolescents are black.
It is no wonder that many of us have felt demoralized. We have a lot of seemingly intractable issues before us. I’m not an expert on education, or the justice system, but I know a thing or two about HIV/AIDS. I’ve worked on prevention, treatment and research and, I’ve lived with the disease for over twenty six years. I can tell you we can win the fight against AIDS.