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.
It won't be easy, as Obama warned during is victory speech in South Carolina: "The change we seek has always required great struggle and great sacrifice." But with AIDS, we are already starting to see that change. Black institutions from the NAACP to BET, black thought leaders from Bishop T.D. Jakes to Danny Glover, have stepped forward to issue a declaration of commitment and call to action to end AIDS in black America. And black America is slowly starting to understand that AIDS is a serious problem and believe we can end it.
During the presidential debate in Nevada Senator Clinton said, "The three of us—Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards—are here in large measure because [Dr. Martin Luther King's] dreams have been realized."
Clearly, having a black man or a woman as their party's likely standard bearer for president of the United States is evidence of progress toward the realization of Dr. King's dream. But Dr. King's dream can not be manifested in who is running or even elected president of the United States. That dream was about the people. And right now, when it comes to the AIDS crisis, the people are in trouble.
I can see how Sen. Clinton might believe that Dr. King's dream has been realized. Black people know better, but with Sen. Obama's campaign, we have begun to believe that it might.
Phill Wilson is the CEO of the Black AIDS Institute.