Changed realities and perceptions in the second decade of AIDS
resulted in more attention to the epidemic’s impact in communities of
color both in the mainstream and in the African American community.
Many have argued that the early depiction of AIDS as a disease
primarily affecting white homosexual men distorted the reality of AIDS
transmission and contributed to the rise of AIDS among other groups who
believed that they were not at risk for the disease (Cohen 1999; Schiller
1992; Shilts 1987).
Yet a series of events in
the 90s, all of which involved prominent African Americans, served to
heighten awareness and combat old stereotypes about HIV/AIDS and its
transmission in the African American community.
Star athlete Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s November 1991
announcement that he had tested positive for HIV during a routine physical
exam was a shock to the black community (and many in White America as
well). As a result, more news
stories focused on AIDS in the black community and more African Americans
were made aware of their risk. Another
critical moment influencing African American perceptions of AIDS came in
April 1992 when famed tennis champion Arthur Ashe announced that he had
contracted AIDS from a 1983 blood transfusion during open-heart surgery.
Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia in February of 1993.
His struggle served to further educate the community about the
epidemic. Finally, the sudden
death of popular rap star Eric “Eazy-E” Wright at the age of 31 from
AIDS in March of 1995 served as a wake up call to younger African
Americans who admired Wright and his music.
For many younger African Americans, Wright’s death smashed the
long-held myth that heterosexuals were immune from contracting HIV and
The rapidly escalating numbers of African Americans and Hispanics
contracting HIV and AIDS would be another factor that heightened attention
to what some in the popular media referred to as the “changing face”
of AIDS. The proportional
distribution of African American AIDS cases reported by the CDC increased
dramatically throughout much of the 90s with the proportion of blacks with
AIDS surpassing that of whites by mid-decade.
By the end of the decade, African Americans and Hispanics made up
more than half, 56 percent, of the total number of AIDS cases reported in
In 2000 alone, African
Americans represented almost half (47 percent) of all reported AIDS cases
even though they remained only 12 percent of the population.
Americans’ growing concerns were reflected in a 1998 survey conducted by
the Kaiser Family Foundation. Their
report, based on telephone interviews with 811 African American adults,
found that a majority, 52 percent, considered AIDS the most urgent health
problem facing the nation. Forty-nine
percent of the respondents indicated that they personally knew someone
with HIV/AIDS or who has died from the disease.
A majority, 58 percent, also indicated that they believed the
situation was a more urgent health problem than it was a few years ago.
Their responses lent qualitative weight to the CDC data on black
infection rates and provided a clear indication that the African American
community had finally awakened to the growing devastation wrought by AIDS.
The increased impact of the epidemic in black and brown communities
would prove a challenge for traditional community-based AIDS organizations
unfamiliar with the unique needs of their newer clientele.