If we fail to end AIDS in the Black Community…we fail to end AIDS.
—Phill Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute
The early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States imbued the collective consciousness with images of young gay White men in New York and San Francisco dying quick, brutal deaths from a mysterious disease. AIDS appeared to have descended overnight; but as terrifying as it was, media and health officials assured the public that its cause resided in the dangers of gay promiscuity, not pathogens. As James Curran, a medical doctor and spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explained in a 1981 New York Times article, “The best evidence against contagion is that no cases have been reported to date outside the homosexual community.”
It quickly became apparent, however, that the disease originally called gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID) could impact anyone—and quickly did. Communities of color, and most notably African-Americans,1 were disproportionately impacted from the start. While African-Americans individually may not have believed they were at risk for HIV infection,2 they understood its threat to their communities. While other communities pointed only to gay White men, William Hawkeswood notes in Transforming Anthropology that Harlem residents in New York City understood that the “epidemic thing” had infected “Blacks…who had connection with the white gay scene” and were heterosexual men and women who used injection drugs.3
Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, is a gay African-American man who has lived with AIDS since 1981. He says that “back in the day, as our friends and loved ones got sick, we knew it was serious. Little did we know that it would be the health catastrophe of our generation.”
The devastating impact of HIV on African-Americans cannot be overstated. In 1981, Blacks accounted for approximately one-quarter of all new HIV infections.4,5 Seven years later, African-Americans surpassed Whites in the number of new HIV infections for the first time—a trend that continues to this day.6 Blacks, who account for about 14 percent of the total U.S. population, represent nearly one-half of the estimated 50,000 new HIV cases that occur every year, and about 500,000 of the almost 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) overall.7,8,9,10,11
The lifetime risk of HIV is far higher among African-Americans than any other ethnic group. Black women have a 1 in 32 chance of acquiring HIV in their lifetime, compared to White women, who have only a 1 in 588 chance of HIV infection.12 Black men are at even greater risk, with a 1 in 16 lifetime chance of acquiring HIV, compared to White men, who bear a 1 in 104 risk.13
|Subpopulation||Number of New Infections|
|Black Heterosexual Women||5,400|
|Black Heterosexual Men||2,400|
|Hispanic Heterosexual Women||1,700|
|White Heterosexual Women||1,700|
|Black Male IDUs||1,200|
|Black Female IDUs||940|
Source: CDC. CDC fact sheet: estimates of new HIV infections in the United States, 2006-2009. Available at www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/HIV-Infections-2006-2009.pdf (PDF – 785 KB). Accessed December 15, 2011.
* The term MSM refers to “men who have sex with men.”
** The term IDU refers to “injection drug user.”
Source: CDC. CDC fact sheet: Estimates of new HIV infections in the United States, 2006-2009. Available at www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/HIV-Infections-2006-2009.pdf (PDF – 785 KB). Accessed December 15, 2011.