Robert Fullilove Talks The Black Community and AIDS
Professor Robert E. Fullilove, EdD is the Associate Dean for Community and Minority Affairs, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences and the co-director of the Cities Research Group.
Speaks on how AIDS , once called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), was presented in the media during the early days of the epidemic.
“The name itself gave rise to the notion that this was something that was affecting Americans from a particular community, identified by their sexual preference, separate and apart from folk in black communities like Harlem or Watts were experiencing themselves. The presentation in the press was of a white epidemic.”
On secrets in the African-American community
“We were so much afraid of what it meant to have what was happening in the slave quarters revealed to those who were empowered to direct every aspect of our lives. So we became secretive, because if there was dissension, if there was anger, the last thing you wanted to do was to make it public. To make it public was to be punished. So it created the notion that silence was indeed golden. And to the degree that carried over well after slavery had ended, that did us a fundamental disservice when the epidemic began.”
On the decision to treat drugs and addiction as a criminal justice problem and not as a health problem
“Sharing needles for intravenous drugs was a primary means by which many people became infected. It is especially important, in the African-American community, to understand that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, roughly 40 percent of the cases of AIDS were basically identified among people whose major risk behavior was intravenous drug use. Between 1970 and 2010, we made a practice of making the war on drugs, which meant we were locking up the folks who were at greatest risk for being exposed to this virus.”
Recognizing that the problem exists but not making moves to prevent terrible things from happening, like the transmission of HIV, means that more than anything else, we had a situation where prevention could have worked. We didn’t seize the opportunity, and in failing to seize the opportunity, we’re now living with the consequences.
~ Dr. Robert Fullilove
“The simple fact that we’re not taking appropriate public health measures to prevent the transmission of this virus means that in the very beginning of the epidemic, prisons became places where the virus had to have become transmitted freely. The danger, of course, in this kind of discourse is to demonize and stigmatize prisoners. I think it’s probably more important to think about putting the onus for taking public health measures to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening on the folk who are responsible for running the prisons. Recognizing that the problem exists but not making moves to prevent terrible things from happening, like the transmission of HIV, means that more than anything else, we had a situation where prevention could have worked. We didn’t seize the opportunity, and in failing to seize the opportunity, we’re now living with the consequences.”
On the attitude in some black churches
“In 1964, I was part of something called Mississippi Freedom Summer. I was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I worked in a number of counties in Northern Mississippi, and really got a sense of the importance of the church and its capacity to galvanize community support around, for example, getting people to register to vote. When I started doing research and community work in HIV in the 1980s, I, like many folk working in the black community, went first to the church and said, ‘Hey, we have another problem that really requires the galvanization of all elements of the community. You’re the only institution left standing that really has the capacity to bring us all together. Let’s get all this work done.’ And what we were met with was an enormous amount of resistance. There were many, many folk who were clear about the importance of what we were doing, but they were in the minority. The vast majority were either unaware or uninterested or worse, were extremely homophobic — saw this as a gay problem that had nothing to do with them and were much more likely to engage in the kind of preaching [that was harmful] than just about anything else.”
On the Affordable Care Act
“It’s thought that maybe 20 percent of all African-Americans who are living with HIV/AIDS don’t know that they’re infected. And they don’t know that they’re infected because they haven’t been tested. If the act is successful in increasing the rate at which people get regular checkups, become aware of their status and enter treatment, then I think we’re going to see an important change in the direction of the epidemic. It’s sad to say that prevention, right now in the U.S., is neatly characterized by the phrase: ‘Treatment is prevention.’ If you’re in treatment and your viral load has been lowered, you’re very unlikely to pass the virus onto someone else. It means we’ve taken a step back — we’ve acknowledged that there are some folk that are already infected, and the best we can do is make sure they don’t infect someone else. That’s a real tragedy compared to where we were in the 1980s, when we thought keeping folk from being infected in the first place was going to be our primary goal and objective.
Today things have changed tremendously going from massive fear where a majority was afraid of catching HIV from the infected to being to comfortable. Today people are too free and too relaxed, mostly acting careless by participating in unprotected sex. The rate of the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s growth amongst Blacks in America is at heights that if allowed to continue to grow has potential to wipe out millions within a decade. Educational awareness is key in prevention.
As a community Black have to actively pursue seeking information about HIV/AIDs and accepting responsibility to take necessary precaution when engaging in sexual activity.