Black communities and the framing of AIDS

A recurrent theme that I found particularly pertinent throughout Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness is the tremendous influence of issue-framing on community mobilization against the AIDS epidemic. The public and private perception of AIDS as a problem facing only a marginalized and specific subsection of the black community—gay men and injection drug abusers—relegate the disease outside the narrow constraints of what Cohen calls “consensus issues”. A historical “process of stratification and intersection…in which issues are no longer understood as all-encompassing racial issues or experienced by all community members similarly” has inhibited the formation of a more coherent blueprint for black activism around AIDS (Cohen, 13).  Not only has AIDS been framed as a “cross-cutting issue” that affects a particular group of African Americans, the social ostracization of their identity further hindered prospects for community-wide solidarity and organizing.

The very economic and political context of 1980s black America rendered unity increasingly difficult. With the advent of both deindustrialization and suburbanization, African Americans across the country “witnessed the continuing bifurcation of black communities, illustrated most noticeably in the intensified division between an expanding black middle class and expanding numbers of black poor” (91). Compounding this rupture is the persistent invisibility of black gays and lesbians, in particular those who are a part of the urban poor or the working class. Kimberle Crenshaw’s conception of intersectionality can be exceptionally helpful to understanding the construction of AIDS as a singular issue affecting gay men, whose sexuality automatically alienated them from the greater black community.

As a result of the Center for Disease Control’s biased research, AIDS became essentially framed as an issue for gay white men. Subsequently, “African Americans came to see this disease as something they did not need to be concerned about, something completely outside of their communities” (139). This problematic publicity surrounding the epidemic in the 1980s—largely a product of corporate and state irresponsibility—undermined the potential for mobilization of the black community around AIDS on any scale. Even stories about AIDS from “left-oriented publications [were] produced primarily by lesbian and gay publications” (241). The disease became perceived to be outside the realm of the normalized black experience.

The treatment of victims further revealed the deep-seated issues within the framing of AIDS that inhibited broad-scale activism. When Magic Johnson announced his HIV-positive status on national television, the press responded not with an acknowledgment that the disease can be contracted by anyone but rather with rumors about his bisexuality. Even when the media did humanize the illness, the discourse narrowly bestowed the status of rightful victimhood to black women and children. It is in this context that the proposed needle exchange program in New York City came under controversy: “black officials seemed to engage in a calculus of human worth, where the lives of ‘innocent’ children and ‘regular, law-abiding community folk’ were designated as more important and worth saving than the lives of black injection drug users” (344). Such a fallacious framing of AIDS obstructed the unification of the African American activist community more than homophobia or the lack of financial resources ever did.

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