When the Democrats gathered on June 28 for the first of Tavis Smiley's All-American Presidential Forums, the conversation about AIDS was a far cry from the sorry spectacle of the 2004 vice presidential debate.
In that 2004 debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked both Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Democratic nominee John Edwards about confronting HIV among Black women. A befuddled Cheney replied that he was "not aware" of the problem; Edwards ignored the actual question and talked instead about AIDS in Russia and Africa.
But what a difference three years, lots of activism and intrepid Black journalism makes. When NPR's Michele Martin asked about AIDS among Black teens in the June 28 debate at Howard University, the leading Democratic contenders took turns offering meaningful responses.
"If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country," declared Sen. Hillary Clinton, drawing rousing applause. "This is a multiple dimension problem," Clinton concluded. "But if we don't begin to take it seriously and address it the way we did back in the 90s, when it was primarily a gay man's disease, we will never get the services and the public education that we need."
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Sen. Barack Obama urged African Americans to challenge stigma surrounding the virus, and notably cited homophobia as a roadblock. "We don't talk about it in the schools," Obama said. "Sometimes we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of sometimes a homophobia, that we don't address this issue as clearly as it needs to be."
Obama added that AIDS is but one more symptom of the larger, "interconnected" problems we face. "The African American community is weakened," he declared. "It has a disease to its immune system."
Sen. Joe Biden urged African Americans to get tested and to discard unhealthy notions of Black masculinity that discourage both condom use and sexual communication.
John Edwards outlined three clear policy priorities for stopping AIDS, which included boosting spending to find a cure, guaranteeing universal treatment for people living with AIDS, and expanding Medicaid to cover HIV—a crucial initiative that advocates have tried and failed to get on Washington's agenda for a decade, and which Clinton highlights on her campaign Web site.
Black America has finally convinced presidential candidates that if they want to get our support, they have to meaningfully discuss AIDS—at least when they are talking to us. Now we've got to make them put their platforms where their mouths are. Show us the plan, Mr. and Mrs. Candidate. Show us the plan.
The AIDS story is primarily one of failed leadership, and it's time for our leaders—and our wannabe leaders—to actually lead. No candidate in either party has put forward a plan for dealing with AIDS in the United States, let alone a plan to end the epidemic in Black America. And no candidate should receive a dime from us, let alone our votes, without one.
This demand is a crucial one. An Open Society Institute report highlighted in May that America today has no overarching plan guiding our national response to an epidemic that has killed more than half a million people and left as many as 1.3 million infected today.
There are no listed goals. No benchmarks for success. No delineation of the resources needed. As my grandmother used to say, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."
Black America suffers most from this lack of focus. We account for half of all people living with HIV/AIDS and half of all new infections each year. As Martin noted in her question to the candidates, our children make up 69 percent of new cases among teens. Black women represent two-thirds of female cases. Forty-six percent of Black gay men may already be positive.
So any candidate credibly asking for African American votes must show how he or she plans to end the epidemic in Black America. We must not accept vague promises alone, but must insist that candidates lay out detailed proposals.
The candidates don't have to start from scratch in this process. Last summer, Black community leaders stepped into the void and began plotting a national mobilization to end AIDS in Black America. Twenty-five national Black institutions have since signed on to the effort, which boasts signatories that range from the NAACP to Snoop Dog, Ludacris, Don Cheadle and Beyonce.
Every presidential candidate should sign on to this historic mobilization as well.
The time for haphazard, reactionary policymaking in confronting AIDS is gone. The emergency of the epidemic's early years has long since morphed into a lasting, increasingly complex problem that demands a solution born from proactive planning. Black Americans cannot afford to accept anything less.
So here is what we need to do. Anytime we communicate with a presidential candidate-by mail, email, telephone or in person-ask this question: What is your plan to end AIDS in the Black community?