A reflection from AIDS United’s Zamora Fellow on centering racial justice in ending the epidemic

Growing up as a gay man in the United States, I was not taught about HIV. Mention of the epidemic in United States’ history textbooks was confined to a paragraph and mainstream media portrayals of HIV, such as HBO’s “Angels in America,” positioned the epidemic as an event in the not-too-distant past which mostly impacted white gay men. Even as an adult, news about breakthroughs in HIV care, such as the advent and benefits of PrEP, was taught to me by highway billboards and television commercials rather than my primary care provider.

The reasons for this are varied. The taboo nature of HIV is due to a combination of societal stigma and homophobia, the lost narratives of those who died due to HIV-related complications at the height of the epidemic and, more recently, deeply rooted anti-Blackness.

Before taking the position as the Pedro Zamora Public Policy Fellow at AIDS United, my conception of HIV/AIDS was largely informed by whitewashed historical narratives and media representations. It was not until beginning my journey as an HIV advocate that I learned the reality of the HIV epidemic in the United States is far different.

BIPOC, or Black, Indigenous and people of color, communities are disproportionately affected by HIV. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2018 demonstrates that Black people represented 41% of people living with HIV, while only making up 13% of the US population, and Latinx people represented around 23% of people living with HIV while accounting for 18% of the entire population. It is suspected that widening inequities in health and economic opportunity are likely to make this problem worse in the coming years.

The reasons for the disproportionate rate of HIV infection among BIPOC communities are complicated, yet they can largely be explained through analyses of institutionalized white supremacy and anti-Black racism that permeates U.S. society and results in inequalities in income, opportunity and health outcomes.

The summer of 2020 marked a watershed moment in the fight for racial justice in the United States. The mass mobilizations spurred on by the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Amaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others at the hands of police officers left many HIV advocates, including myself, and community leaders wondering what they could do to uplift Black voices in our community.

Questions about racial equity in spaces dedicated to HIV quickly spurred more conversations about how to ensure that those leading the movement come from communities most impacted by the virus and how to make sure that a purposeful commitment to racial equity is a key facet in efforts to end the HIV epidemic.

In order to answer some of these questions, AIDS United’s Public Policy Council has announced the creation of the Racial Justice Index. This tool was built to assess and improve the HIV sector’s commitment to racial equity in hiring practices, leadership, talent retention and decision-making in the HIV movement. Through assessment tools and educational resources, the goal is to combat anti-Black racism and other forms of racism. The index will first be tested on members of the Public Policy Council and then later offered to the wider HIV sector. The index’s methodical implementation process will inform a publicly-released report, which will facilitate critical leadership conversations among HIV stakeholders. The initiative is guided by the Racial Justice Index Committee, a committee of AIDS United’s Public Policy Council, which is co-chaired by Raniyah Copeland, president and CEO of Black AIDS Institute, and A. Toni Young, CEO, Community Education Group — nationally renowned Black leaders in the HIV community.

The Racial Justice Index represents a first step in ensuring a more purposeful commitment to racial equity in the HIV community. It is my hope that the Index will give space to much needed conversations on how to prioritize Black leaders in HIV advocacy and create effective strategies for ensuring that BIPOC communities are receiving the treatment necessary to result in equitable health outcomes and an end to the HIV epidemic by 2025.