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A Product of Deep Poverty, Despair and Discrimination

AIDS in Black America

by RALPH NADER

George W. Bush-the master of fabricated distractions-as with the false pretense invasion of Iraq-has turned the national television news media away from the United States.

So it was a sobering reversal of direction to watch ABC’s August 24th Primetime Special Edition "Out of Control: AIDS in Black America." It marked the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS and the last documentary that the late Peter Jennings worked to put on the air.

With 13 percent of the U.S. population, black Americans constitute over 50 percent of all new cases of HIV. This infection rate is eight times the rate of whites. It gets worse. Almost 70 percent of new female cases of HIV-positive women are black women who are a stunning 13 times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women. Black women get AIDS overwhelmingly through heterosexual contact, the documentary reported.

Terry Moran, who did a fine job as anchor, interviewed black leaders working on AIDS and infectious disease specialists to find out why, in very candid exchanges.

In summary:

(1) infection comes more heavily to the black community due to high rates of HIV-positive men coming out of prison,

(2) drug addiction and the widespread use of dirty needles,

(3) the taboo against talking about the problem of homosexual-related AIDS transmission in many black religious circles and

(4) the absence of any comprehensive AIDS prevention and treatment programs that reach the netherworld of community-wide poverty, despair and lack of information.

Still, the attentive viewer would want to know more. Moran obliged. He asked Jesse Jackson and others why prominent black leaders do not highlight this disaster more than they do, or as they do for the AIDS epidemic in Africa. One reply was that there are so many disasters afflicting black America that attention to one takes away from the other.

Moran then showed a clip of a sermon by well-known Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. "You can’t sleep with everyone you want to sleep with," bewailed a tormented Rev. Butts.

It is not as if whites are much less drug-addicted. But there is a disproportionate percentage of black men in jail where homosexual contact is the HIV transmitter. Moran pointed to studies from the Universities of Chicago and North Carolina which conclude that black men are more than twice as likely as white men to have multiple female partners.

Still, the disproportions noted in "Out of Control" are so vast between blacks and whites that a deeper condition must be at work here. Call it another vast disproportion. A sub-society of deep poverty, unemployment, despair, street drugs, documented discriminatory law enforcement and prison incarceration rates, the absence of neighborhood public health facilities skilled in addressing the triple needs of testing, prevention and treatment are all incubators without portfolios. A vicious cycle of infection is out of control in these environments.

The social services, such as health coverage, that have restrained the AIDS epidemic among whites are not proportionately there among black communities.

The ABC documentary may be crying out in the wilderness or it may be a wake-up call with its own multiplier effect. Don’t count on the Bush regime, bogged down in the Iraq quagmire and looking for other wars, to take notice. The lead burden will be on black community leaders and an aroused public health profession to turn around our country’s priorities in Congress, the White House, state and local governments, and prod more media attention. On the local and national television news, there is certainly enough trivia to replace.

You may wonder what the fatality count among blacks is each year. Over ten thousand black Americans died from AIDS last year. The family agonies and deprivations are not compiled in these statistics.