Thursday, October 14, 2004
by Wayne Besen
A black comedian once half jokingly quipped that America's drug "problem" only became an "epidemic" when suburban white kids started getting high. Sadly, the same shortsighted principle can be applied to AIDS. The African-American community is in the throes of a devastating epidemic, while the white majority has dangerously compartmentalized it as a minority "problem".
This alarming racial disconnect was no more apparent than during the vice presidential debate. Moderator Gwen Ifill asked Dick Cheney about AIDS and minorities in America:
"I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts," said Ifill.
Perhaps Cheney thought he was running for VP in Botswana, because he blatantly ignored Ifill's clear instructions and immediately invoked Africa. When it was clear he couldn't run out the clock, Cheney finally dealt with the mushrooming crisis at home.
"Here in the United States, we've made significant progress. I have not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was - that they're in epidemic there."
Hasn't heard the numbers? Not aware that "they're in epidemic there"?
Dick, "there" happens to be right outside your window in Washington, DC, if you'd care to open the rose-colored shades and take a gander at reality. Where has this man been hiding out, a bunker? Oh yeah, it's Dick Cheney.
The truth is that Cheney is not aware because he does not care. His ignorance is born out of studied indifference. Was he so off base, because African-Americans aren't part of the Republican base? There is really no other logical way to explain an intellectual emptiness from Cheney that is usually reserved for his boss.
Cheney has never been a luminary on African-American issues. As a Congressman, he voted against a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. He voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Nonetheless, one assumed Cheney had a rudimentary knowledge of the impact of AIDS in minority communities. The only thing more shocking than Cheney's cluelessness is the shocking statistics themselves.
- African-Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population. But according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, they account for 54-percent of the 40,000 new diagnoses of HIV/AIDS in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
- Of the estimated 385,000 people living with AIDS, 42 percent were African-American.
Cheney should also know that when it comes to AIDS, America's health system is mirroring our judicial system: Blacks get the death penalty at a much greater rate than whites.
- Among black men ages 25 to 44, the HIV/AIDS mortality rate was more than six times greater than for whites. And, as Ifill pointed out, the death rate is even more staggering for black women.
"The area my clinic's in is essentially a suburb of the third world," Dr. Joseph C. Gathe, Jr., an infectious disease physician in Houston and director of a nonprofit AIDS clinic told the New York Times. "It's a shame no one seems to know that the problem in Africa looks like the problem in inner-city Houston, Chicago and New York."
There are myriad causes for this appalling discrepancy in life expectancy. Many African-Americans don't get diagnosed until they have full-blown AIDS. Often this is because they lack health insurance or the financial means to obtain medication.
The Bush administration has exacerbated the problem by woefully underfunding the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which helps provide life-saving drugs to low income Americans. In fairness, the Democrats have not resolutely addressed the AIDS epidemic with immediacy either.
The depressing truth is that if heterosexual white Americans were dying from AIDS at the same alarming rate as African Americans, the vice president would be fully engaged. Bush would launch a "war on AIDS" that rivaled his professed "war on terror". Unfortunately, we have an administration so determined to divide the world into black and white, they can no longer see wrong from right.
America first ignored AIDS because it primarily affected homosexuals. Some religious fanatics used Biblical injunctions to say gays "earned their AIDS." Now America is in denial about how the plague is ravaging African-Americans.
In the end, conservatives may find a biblical message, but not the one expected. The Bible commands believers to love thy neighbor. But the antithesis of loving thy neighbor is burying your head in the sands of indifference, as thousands of Americans bury loved ones.
The great moral lesson of AIDS may be that treating others as doormats is the quickest way to bring the disease to your doorstep. History may record today's solipsistic, pious narcissism as the great sin that fueled America's AIDS epidemic.