Phill Wilson ( right ) with actor Hill Harper ( left ) and activist Al Sharpton.
The stats are well-known, but are still staggering: According to the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Black AIDS Institute, nearly 50 percent of the 1.2 million HIV-positive U.S. residents are African-American, 67 percent of the new cases among women and 70 percent of the new diagnoses among youth involve Blacks. The executive director of the institute, Phill Wilson ( who, incidentally, is from Chicago ) , talked with Windy City Times about the why these numbers are so high and what is being done to try to reverse the problem.
Windy City Times: The numbers regarding HIV-infected Blacks are certainly disturbing. How does this happen?
Phill Wilson: It happens in a number of ways. It happens because Black communities were slow to respond to the epidemic, and HIV is a disease of opportunity. It is also a disease of networks, so that once the disease takes hold in a community it basically feeds upon itself. Second, Black communities did not get the kind of support to respond to the AIDS epidemic, as [ compared to ] the white gay community. And, thirdly, I think that the other engine is that poor people, young people and people who don't have access to primary health care are disproportionately impacted. And there's the combination of HIV and drug use—all of these things create a perfect storm, the AIDS epidemic that we see now in Black America.
WCT: Something that a lot of people have jumped on [ as a major cause of the AIDS epidemic ] is the 'down low' phenomenon. Do you think that it's been overblown?
PW: I definitely think it's been overblown. First of all, about the notion that the 'down low' is a uniquely Black phenomenon—that's flatly not true. Second, even this far into the hype about the 'down low,' we have not been able to draw any conclusive relationship [ between ] the 'down low' phenomenon and a significant [ cause of ] the AIDS epidemic in Black communities. That's not to say that there aren't men who are on the 'down low'—clearly there are, and that's not to say that some of those men aren't HIV-positive. But the question is if that's a chief engine that is driving the AIDS epidemic in Black communities; I haven't run across any data to corroborate that.
WCT: What's the main difference between what's going on now and back in the '80s?
PW: One is that, obviously, HIV is not getting the kind of visibility it was getting in the mid-'80s. Certainly, from a government prospective and from the prospective of foundations and corporations, people are not investing as much to fight the disease as did in the late '80s and mid-'90s.
Also, the communities that are most impacted have changed over time. Now, AIDS is a Black disease. No matter how you look at it—gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic class, level of education or geographic region—Black people bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic in America today, and that is a major change.
WCT: And is it presenting a major change in how funds are being allocated?
PW: It's certainly a major change in how funds should be allocated.
WCT: When I talked with you back in 2005, you said that the fight against AIDS in the Black community had 'starved to death'? Do you still feel that way?
PW: Yes. The resources still are not coming to our communities in a sufficient way, and we need to address that.
WCT: What can the average person do to stem the tide?
PW: People can do things around their own protection—things like raising your own awareness and increasing your knowledge of HIV/AIDS, and knowing your own HIV status. Also, [ there's ] advocacy and communicating to policymakers and elected officials that HIV/AIDS is an issue that's still important to us, and demanding that our leaders pay attention to the disease.
WCT: You mentioned our leaders, which, of course, makes me think of the presidential race that's happening. Is there any particular candidate's HIV/AIDS platform that you're gravitating toward?
PW: Well, there are four candidates remaining—Sens. [ Hillary ] Clinton and [ Barack ] Obama on the Democratic side, and Sen. [ John ] McCain and Gov. [ Mike ] Huckabee [ on the Republican side ] . Neither Sen. McCain or Gov. Huckabee has AIDS plans, although Gov. Huckabee has voiced support for a national AIDS plan; Sen. McCain has not. Both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have voice support for a national AIDS plan, and their plans are very similar. I don't think that the AIDS agenda will look substantively different in an Obama presidency versus a Clinton presidency. [ However, ] I do think it would look very, very different if you compared a Democratic to a Republican presidency when you look at the remaining candidates.
Now, Gov. Huckabee has made some very alarming statements in the past about quarantining people with HIV, and while he has said he feels differently about it today, he has not rejected those statements; I would be very concerned about [ would-be ] President Huckabee's agenda regarding HIV/AIDS. Sen. McCain has not invested in this issue at all, which leads me to believe that he has not thought about the issue—which would lead me to have concerns about [ would-be ] President McCain's policy on HIV/AIDS.
WCT: And if you had our current president's ear for, say, 10 minutes, what would you tell him?
PW: I would say, 'George, you don't have to go all the way to East Africa to find Black people living with AIDS. A subway token on the D.C. Metro would introduce you to more Black folks living with HIV or at risk for HIV than you would ever want to know.' Now, the current president, in my opinion, has not paid appropriate attention to the domestic AIDS epidemic, which means that he has not paid attention to the AIDS epidemic in Black America.
WCT: What is the Black AIDS Institute up to right now?
PW: The Black AIDS Institute is focusing on mobilizing Black communities—creating an environment where every Black institution in America is addressing HIV/AIDS in a way that's consistent with their goals and objectives. We're trying to get Black organizations to make fighting AIDS one of their top priorities—to set specific and measurable goals and objectives that articulate what they are going to do, when they are going to do it, what they expect the outcomes to be and how they are going to evaluate their efforts. We are working with organizations around the country to write strategic action plans, and we want to create an environment where we're shooting to end the AIDS epidemic in Black America by increasing the percentage of African Americans who know their HIV status, increasing the percentage of HIV-positive African Americans who are in appropriate care and reducing the stigma in our community.
WCT: Would you like to add anything?
PW: It's important to know that we're at a unique juncture in the AIDS epidemic, and we have an opportunity to make a quantum leap in attacking HIV/AIDS in Black communities—and it's imperative that we do so. It is imperative that Black institutions take ownership for fighting the AIDS epidemic in our communities, and it's imperative that people of goodwill everywhere continue to be committed to end the AIDS epidemic in America.
See www.blackaids.org for more information.