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Blacks Talk About AIDS at City Forum
by Andrew Davis

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Social justice, self-esteem, and the church were just a few of the topics discussed during 'The Time Is Now: Confronting HIV/AIDS in the African-American Community,' a thought-provoking forum presented by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Chicago Foundation for Women. The event took place June 21 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, in a packed auditorium.

Gwen Ifill, a longtime political reporter who is senior correspondent of PBS's Newshour with Jim Lehrer, served as moderator. She is probably best known for stumping then-vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and John Edwards on the question concerning AIDS during a debate she moderated.

The panelists for the event were Cathy J. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago; Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of Los Angeles's Black AIDS Institute; and Dr. Kimberly Y. Smith, an associate professor of medicine in the infectious diseases section at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center.

From the start, the panelists gave strong remarks to the questions Ifill asked. Her first inquiry referred to the question she asked Cheney and Edwards: 'I phrased the question by saying 'I want to talk to you about AIDS—not about AIDS in China or Africa but right here in this country, where Black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government's role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?' What should their answers have been?'

Cohen responded that funding of Medicaid and the AIDS Drug Assistance Program ( ADAP ) was crucial; she also said that education funding was needed. Cohen also commented that the spread of AIDS in the Black community is not just related to condoms; she said that 'it's also about having a job, [ about ] economic dependence, and the lack of access to education.' Wilson, in mentioning 'accountability and responsibility,' made several recommendations about what the government should immediately do, including making sure that HIV policy follows the science by establishing comprehensive prevention efforts ( such as condoms in prisons and needle-exchange programs ) ; dealing correctly with the treatment paradigm ( at one point, saying that 'the government thinks that testing is prevention ... it is not prevention' ) ; and addressing issues regarding stigma.

Smith addressed research and treatment issues while stating that ' [ i ] t's an abomination to have any state where there's a waiting list for ADAP.' She also pointed out that in Mississippi, legislation was recently passed that restricts HIV-positive Medicaid recipients to two brand-name HIV medications—while the standard recommendation is three. Regarding research, she stressed the need for funding, opining that 'we know all we could ever want to know about gay white men, but we don't really know anything about people of color.'

In discussing domestic versus foreign ( specifically, Africa ) -related aid, Wilson said he could not comprehend why it had to be an 'either-or' situation. 'It's simply the tail wagging the dog,' he commented. 'There's AIDS in Africa and AIDS in America.'

He also noted that Blacks 'are dealing with an epidemic that is already a catastrophic health disaster. It is estimated that 50 percent of Black gay men are HIV-positive ... . This epidemic is impacting our housing issues, economic development issues [ and ] civil-rights issues. ... Each and every one of us needs to [ be our own ] champions.'

Cohen added that other topics that needed to be addressed include the exploding incarceration rate and the denial of education to young African Americans; 'it's about social mobilization,' she said. She also noted that 'the Bush administration will not have any interest in Africa once [ the situation in ] Iraq is over.'

Smith initially addressed a question regarding the role of behavior in the exponential increase of HIV/AIDS cases. 'You come back to issues of poverty, homelessness and—for women in particular—dependence on men. Women are put in positions where they are powerless to say no. An 18-year-old will come in, having been sexually active since 14—and with many, many older men. A 65-year-old woman will come in who hasn't been sexually active for many, many years but whose last partner had a history of drug use. All of these stories are about what's going on in our community.'

Wilson said that the epidemic has happened over time and he used a colorful metaphor to illustrate his point. 'Imagine that there's a white swimming pool and a Black swimming pool and each has a shark in it,' he said. 'In the white pool, they react to the shark; in the Black one, they add more sharks. So what happens is that, even if the Black folks swim less often, it's a riskier place to swim.' ( In response, Cohen said that she 'might not ever swim again,' to which Ifill replied 'Well, you know we have flotation problems.' )

In getting back to the issue, Cohen stated that 'we have to make it so that young Black people value their lives—even if no one else does.'

Things did not turn any less controversial or lively during the audience Q&A session. Audience members were invited to write questions on index cards that were then submitted to Ifill.

For example, while discussing the church, Cohen generated applause by stating that the majority of Black churches have failed African Americans. She added that 'the church has to have a role. The question is, how do you hold the church accountable so the leaders can be progressive? I've spent the last 25 years trying to engage Black ministers. ... Maybe it's time to create an alternative institution so we can do much more radical work.' However, some attendees also applauded when Wilson said that he's 'not ready to give up on the Black church.' Smith noted how 'you can not line up Black ministers to talk about AIDS, but look how quickly they lined up behind the bashing of gay marriage.'

To no one's surprise, Ifill proved to be an effective moderator, adding humor while ensuring that the forum ran smoothly. At one point she quipped, 'I've been called a rock star in the AIDS community for asking Cheney and Edwards the AIDS question. I would've been a bigger star if they had answered it.'

Michelle Obama, wife of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and Vice-President for Community and External Affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals, delivered opening remarks and introduced Ifill. While she thanked those already engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS, she also expressed hope that the evening's forum would compel those not involved to do the same. 'The urgency and importance of the issue can't be overstated,' she said.

Among the event's sponsors were the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, GlaxoSmithKline, Marshall Field's Gives, and the Chicago chapter of the National Black MBA Association.

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