August 25, 2008
The Democratic Party today begins a week in which it will rewrite American political history by formally nominating Barack Obama as its presidential candidate. That will be a tremendous political accomplishment, for Obama and for America. But to many observers, this year's Democratic National Convention represents something larger: proof that America is finally on the road toward a more perfect union where all of its people really matter.
Real progress toward that dream may in fact lie ahead in an Obama presidency. Obama and the Democrats must however do more than talk about change to make it so; they must meaningfully address the dramatic, lingering inequalities that still define American life. And among the most pressing challenges they must confront is the raging Black AIDS epidemic.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this month that the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic is at least 40 percent larger than we have believed it to be for more than a decade and is growing by more than 55,000 new infections a year. At least 45 percent of those newly infected in 2006 were Black Americans, the CDC said, despite the fact that we are just 13 percent of the population.
Yet, as the Black AIDS Institute explained in our most recent report, Left Behind, the U.S. government has done little to address these ugly realities. If Black America were its own country, it would have a higher HIV prevalence than all but four countries outside of sub-Saharan Africa. It would have a larger HIV-positive population than seven of the 15 countries the U.S. has deemed a priority for HIV- related foreign assistance.
Barack Obama has vowed in his AIDS platform and in other public statements to take decisive action to bring the domestic epidemic under control. Most notably, he has pledged to draft and begin implementing a national, coordinated AIDS strategy within the first 100 days of his administration. The U.S. insists that any country receiving our assistance in its HIV program first draft just such a plan, but we have notably never had one of our own.
The Black AIDS Institute applauds Obama's AIDS platform. And we urge all voters who care about this epidemic to hold him and the Democratic Party accountable for following through on it if he is elected.
At the same time, the Democrats have controlled Congress since 2006 and have shown little leadership in making HIV a domestic policy priority. The federal budget for AIDS care, treatment and prevention has continued to lag far behind the fast-growing need. And desperately needed reforms to the AIDS care safety net remain on the political back burner. Despite these facts, the Democrats are aggressively seeking black voters' support this fall, not just for Obama but also in congressional races around the country. Before offering that support, we should demand that Democratic congressional leaders first explain what they are going to do to stop this epidemic raging in our community.
Obama has made his AIDS plans clear, and the Black AIDS Institute hopes he will use the national stage he holds this week to help all Americans, in red states as well as blue states, understand why fighting HIV is a priority. But we also will listen carefully for Democratic congressional leadership to explain how it plans to deal with this epidemic in the coming years.
The Democrats will indisputably make history at their convention this week. The question remains whether it will mark a fundamental change for America. How the party handles the deep racial disparities of AIDS will say a great deal about how much a historical moment the convention represents, and for whom.
To learn more about the AIDS records and platforms of both Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, check out the Black AIDS Institute's December 2007 report on all presidential candidates, We Demand Accountability.