It’s 2020 and the HIV rates in the Black community are still at epidemic levels — a mirror of the persistent disadvantages and disenfranchisement experienced by Black America. Although Black people account for a mere 13% of the U.S. population, African Americans comprised 43% of new HIV diagnoses in 2017, 44% of AIDS-related deaths and 42% of all people in the U.S. living with HIV. These rates are staggering, but it doesn’t end there. The rate of HIV diagnoses for Black men is nearly eight times as high as the rate among white men, while the rate for Black women remains 16 times as high as that of white women.
The state of the HIV epidemic today is particularly horrifying because after 20 plus years of revolutionary science, we now have the biomedical tools to end HIV, yet the epidemic rages. We have extraordinarily effective medications that slow the progression of the disease, ensure people living with HIV who maintain an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit HIV to others, and medications that prevent HIV transmission for people who are HIV-negative. We have the biomedical tools to end HIV, but the salient question is: do we have the will to change the structures and systems that promote HIV’s ability to thrive on inhumanity, hatred and exclusion?
HIV in the Black community is so much more than a medical challenge. The root of Black America’s disproportionate HIV burden is inextricably linked with other broader issues from poverty and healthcare access to structural racism, mass incarceration, homophobia and transphobia. These same factors also contribute to the extreme health disparities among our community that limit Black people’s ability to take full advantage of the various medical breakthroughs and treatments that have been developed to combat HIV and AIDS.
We cannot end the epidemic when our community still faces discrimination and widespread stigma; when the stigma of HIV within our community is so prevalent it prevents lifesaving conversations; when doctors, nurses and clinicians lack the tools and training they need to provide the best comprehensive care for Black people living with HIV; and when HIV’s disproportionate impact on the Black community elicits such little response from our government and the media. That is why today, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD), is so important in the fight to end this epidemic.
I serve as the president of The Black AIDS Institute (BAI), the only think tank and do tank devoted to ending the HIV epidemic in Black America. Our work and research over the past two decades tell us that as alarming as these stats and figures are, they only tell part of the story. The broader economic and social disadvantages experienced by Black Americans are integrally linked with the disproportionate impact of HIV in Black communities. We’re working to address the societal factors that cause this undue burden on our community, mobilizing Black leaders across the country to confront HIV in their community, helping to provide comprehensive care to Black people living with HIV and sharing resources with organizations and institutions focused on ending the Black HIV epidemic.
Communities play a pivotal role in addressing this complicated health challenge. To do just that, BAI organizes the Black Treatment Advocates Networks (BTAN). BTANs are local coalitions across the country that address HIV-related barriers specific to Black communities through knowledge transfer, advocacy, mobilization and community building. BTAN's focuses on tackling the root of health disparities through collective, strategic action. BTANs are BAI's primary vehicle for catalyzing needed policy and programmatic change in Black communities across the U.S. Each BTAN chapter involves collaboration between grassroots activists, educators, the HIV workforce, people living with HIV, state and local health departments and service organizations. 14 BTAN chapters and 12 affiliates are currently in place, including 20 in the South. This is an issue which no one organization can solve alone and will require a collective effort from healthcare and advocacy organizations, local communities, our government, vocal leaders and corporate partners. It takes all of us to end this epidemic.
The path forward requires intentional coordination and investment by all these groups. Programs like Gilead COMPASS Initiative®, which is providing more than $100 million over 10 years to combat HIV in the South, are vital to giving organizations on the frontline of this fight the resources and network needed to double down on their efforts. This commitment supports Black leadership from the communities we serve. Organizations like BAI and My Brother’s Keeper in Mississippi or Transinclusive in South Florida are able to enhance our work to combat stigma and support Black people living with HIV because of the investment of programs like the COMPASS Initiative. We need more investments that mirrors this kind of partnership.
Funding and national coordination allows the community to combat stigma in innovative and impactful ways. During this year’s NBHAAD, we’re bringing advocates together from across the country to honor new inductees into our Heroes in the Struggle (HITS) Hall of Fame, our 20th year of this flagship fundraising effort, generating crucial support for BAI’s work. Each year, we’ve introduced people from all walks of life into a traveling photographic tribute to Black Americans and allies who have made heroic contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS. BAI is honoring an illustrious group of 2020 changemakers including Dr. Eugene McCray, Laith Ashley De La Cruz, Karamo, Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Dr. Keith Green. Previous Heroes include Hill Harper, Jurnee Smollett, Laverne Cox, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Billy Porter, Taraji P. Henson, Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Lewis and others.
The solution to ending HIV in the Black community is beyond the means of any single organization to deliver. Today, on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we call on Black leaders, organizations, grassroots activists and diverse stakeholders to re-prioritize the fight against HIV and determine how they can contribute to ending the epidemic. Now, all of us need to roll up our sleeves. We know what needs to be done. No one can save us but us.
Let’s do it.
Raniyah Copeland, MPH is President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the nation’s only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on Black people. She previously served as Director of Programs, the organization’s chief HIV prevention, treatment, training and community mobilization expert.
Copeland earned a Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies and Public Health from UC Berkeley, and a Master of Public Health from Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science.