Race and America’s HIV Epidemic

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July 10, 2012

In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a notice that five young gay men in the Los Angeles area had died from an unusual form of pneumonia.  It was the first report of what would come to be known as AIDS — a disease that has infected an estimated 34 million people worldwide and killed more than 30 million.

But from the beginning, something was missing: The bulletin said nothing about race.  While the first five patients reported to the CDC were white, the next two were black, recalls Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who saw those first patients in Los Angeles.

As more and more cases were uncovered, the media warned of a killer plague attacking gay men. But the images they used were of white men. Many black men breathed a sigh of relief.

It was the beginning of what would become a massive epidemic, and for blacks in America, one that killed its victims in secret. “[A]s the disease grew and grew and grew and grew, we tended to ignore it and pay no attention to it, or to think it was something that didn’t affect anybody that we knew, and therefore not a matter of concern for us,” Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP, tells FRONTLINE in the film. “Which is foolish, and criminal even, but nonetheless I think that was pretty much the attitude.”

Tonight in ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America, FRONTLINE explores how HIV has permeated the community. Racism and homophobia have played roles in the spread of the disease, but so have religion, poverty and politics. It’s a complex mix, and the result is troubling: African Americans today make up half of all new infections in the U.S.

But there’s also hope for ending the epidemic, something that didn’t seem possible 30 years ago when it began. Watch a preview above explaining how the disease first spread in the U.S., then tune in tonight for the full film (check local listings here) or stream it online here starting at 9 p.m. EST.


Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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