HIV has never just been merely a question about race, no more than the oppression of black people is solely a matter of race. We cannot being to unpack and ultimately unravel the dizzying epidemic of HIV among black people until we also and simultaneously address issues of gender, class, and sexual identity, and how they all intersect with racism. Most critically, HIV in the black community is and always has been not only a matter of science, and a matter of public health, but also a matter of justice.
Nowhere is this more evident in the alarming increase of HIV among young black gay men, a group marginalized not only because of systematic racial discrimination, but also heterosexism and other issues. Yes, black people are disproportionately impacted by HIV, but there has to be a consideration of how other oppressions collide with racism in the lives of black people to create different forms of vulnerability, and different degrees of vulnerability, with an already very vulnerable group.
Considering this: how we are to think about HIV in the black community? How can we remain vigilant in confronting an epidemic that is unambiguously but not monolithically black? How can we understand the racial specificity of HIV, while not pathologizing black communities? There are perhaps a few directions we can consider, to not so much as solve the crisis of HIV in black communities, but provide potential tools to get at better questions which will lead to better answers, and ultimately better approaches:
Intersectionality: Neither black people nor the black community are a monolith. We have to understand not only how HIV operates in the black community, but in different black communities. How does HIV operate in black gay communities, working and middle class black communities, religious and secular black communities, communities of black men engaged in a particular form of masculinity opposed to black men engaged in another form of masculinity, in and across communities of transgender and gender queer black people, and in communities of different national origin, ethnic identity and/or immigration status? This also has to operate the level of policy. It is not enough to think about policy from a narrow identity-politics framework. Rather, we must understand how HIV policy impacts different communities of black people differently.
(2) Resilience- Statistics, and not very good ones, are so frequently used to talk about black people to represent not only the issues of black community, but the realities of black lives. They are so pervasive and so often coupled with the word “black,” that statistics themselves become less a matter of science and more a matter of empty symbolism. We must search not only for the problems, but also the protective factors. What is working? How can we identify and harness our most valuable community assets? This is not to ignore or dilute the challenges black communities experience everyday; rather it is to identify the assets and strengths of our communities, and replicate them.
(3) Justice- Our HIV prevention efforts, have to be framed as a matter of social justice. One can not consider the individuals and communities most impacted by HIV, without any thought or consideration for how far too often, those same communities are vulnerable to a litany of other challenges. Economic distress, poor health outcomes, housing, substance and mental health disparities are not a collection of autonomous coincidences, they are a part of a larger picture of injustice. For example: if black people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, and disproportionately impacted by HIV, how can HIV criminalization be anything other than a form of sexual-racial profiling?
This Black AIDS Day we are insisting upon a Black AIDS Justice paradigm that considers both the similarities and diversity in black communities. We are also insisting upon the centrality of resilience in how we think about black communities and an unyielding and unwavering commitment to social justice politics and practice.
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