I didn't notice the insult at first. During the week that President George W. Bush and his congressional colleagues declared my family to be the nation's most pressing problem, I was too busy trying to end the AIDS epidemic to pay much attention.
Their timing was classic. It was the first week of June, a week in which we marked the 25th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnosis. So I had joined an unprecedented coalition of national Black leaders — from politicians to celebrities — in calling the community to action against AIDS. That was my priority: Saving lives.
As the late Coretta Scott King once said, "Anyone who sincerely cares about the future of Black America had better be speaking out about AIDS." Washington, alas, had other priorities.
The White House and its congressional emissaries paid no attention to the June 5 call to action. What preoccupied them? Health care for all, you ask? Rebuilding New Orleans? Trying to figure out how to bring our soldiers home from Iraq? It was none of those things.
Instead, they wanted to link into the Constitution a ban on gay marriage — a triple redundancy, given that a 1996 federal law already does just that and only one state in the nation issues same-sex marriage licenses. The Senate nevertheless leapt into action and, voting largely along party lines, the august body chose to leave the Constitution as it is, for now.
Now, I'm trying to figure this out. American soldiers are dying every day in Iraq. Interest rates are going up, property values are going down. Students in California and other states can't pass their exit exams. "No Child Left Behind" has become "no child left." Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, most of the residents of New Orleans still can't go home. Half a million Americans are dead from AIDS. And the most pressing issue for the "leader of the free world" is denying gay and lesbian families equal protection under the law? How can that be?
As the Bush administration and Senate Republicans pandered to their political base last month, the Ryan White CARE Act lingered untouched on the congressional workbench. The CARE Act funds treatment and care for low-income people with HIV/AIDS around the country. Congress was required to reauthorize the act last year but hasn't gotten around to it yet. Too busy with other priorities, it seems.
Of course, even if Congress reauthorizes the CARE Act, the White House has for years urged lawmakers not to give the program any real new funds. Today, with an estimated 40,000 new infections every year and more Americans living with HIV/AIDS than ever, the CARE Act remains at largely the same funding level it had in 2001 –five years and 200,000 new infections ago.
For the AIDS epidemic's first eight years, America's leaders similarly chose other priorities over AIDS; President Ronald Reagan didn't bother to even discuss the subject publicly until 1987.
Our politicos' willingness to dismiss the carnage back then, because it appeared to largely plague gay men, gave HIV the space it needed to take root. Those roots now stretch into every part of our society, particularly Black society. Nearly 70 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases among women are Black and nearly half of Black gay and bisexual men in some of our urban cities might already be infected.
Maybe it's just a question of priorities. Perhaps the 54 percent of annual new infections that are Black register no greater import to today's leaders than the infections among gay and bisexual men did to those of the Reagan era.
Those infections are, however, a priority to me. As are all of the estimated 1 million Americans living with HIV—a quarter to a third of whom don't know they are infected—and roughly half of whom are Black.
And now, having decided on my own priorities and taken note of how out of step they are with those of my political leaders, I'm finally insulted by the spectacle Washington created in the first week of June. The question is: What will we do about the jarring misalignment of values?
If we learned nothing from Hurricane Katrina, we should have learned this: They are not going to send the boats or the buses for us in time. AIDS in America today is a Black disease. There is no getting around it. It's also painfully obvious that we can't wait for our political leaders to save us from that fact.
So perhaps we should remind Washington of Thomas Paine's famous plea: Lead, follow or get out of the way. Right now, too many of our elected officials of all political stripes are just plain in the way. It's up to us to move them.
Phill Wilson is CEO and founder of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles.