Racial Justice Activist DeRay Mckesson Reflects on HIV and the Black Lives Matter Movement

DeRay Mckesson
DeRay Mckesson

A little over a year ago, DeRay Mckesson was an unknown school administrator in Minneapolis, and Ferguson, Missouri, was a more or less unremarkable town on the outskirts of St. Louis. Today, in the wake of the police murder of Michael Brown and the unrest that soon followed, that town has become the spiritual and sociopolitical nexus of what many are terming a "New Civil Rights Movement," and Mckesson has emerged as one of its most prominent spokespersons.

Since the summer of 2014, Mckesson has gone from being an ordinary citizen with a Twitter account to one of the most powerful activists for racial justice in the country, recently securing meetings with Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and headlining a Black Lives Matter-focused opening plenary session at the 2015 United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) -- on a bill that also included the longest-tenured black woman in Congress and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus's Health Braintrust.

Unlike the remarks made earlier by congresswomen Robin Kelly (D-IL) and Maxine Waters (D-CA), Mckesson largely stayed away from discussing specific HIV/AIDS policy, talking more about both the development and long-term goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and his personal experience as a young, black, gay man dealing with HIV testing and race issues within the health care system. During his address, Mckesson spoke about how the conference's theme of "The Numbers Don't Lie" was important to him because it shined a light on the racially based health disparities in the U.S. and placed an "explicit focus on blackness."

At the plenary, Mckesson spoke about the unacceptably wide health care disparities among people of color when it comes to HIV, alluding to the fact that blacks make up only 12% of America's population, yet account for 47% of its new HIV infections. However, Mckesson also talked about how these numbers -- no matter how jarring -- tell only part of the story of what it means to be black in America. Echoing the earlier remarks of HIV/AIDS and women's health advocate Valerie Rochester, Mckesson told the audience, "We must remember that our reality has never ever been captured in what people consider 'the data.'" "We have rich stories because we have rich lives," he added. It was within this context that Mckesson brought up the importance of the work that he and other Black Lives Matter activists have been doing over the past year to carve out a space -- predominantly on social media -- where their stories could be told.

Towards the end of his speech, Mckesson shared some of his own experiences with HIV testing and the stigma that still clings to it in the black community. "I remember the first time I ever got tested three years ago," he said. "I sat in the doctor's office, afraid -- afraid because to be tested had always been told to me to mean an acknowledgement of wrongdoing; the consequence of poor choices."

For Mckesson and many others in the black community, the discussion around HIV has historically been one centered on shame rather than science, and it was within this predominantly moral framework that poor decision making around HIV has been given space to take root. "The story I had been told about testing had been one about shame," Mckesson remarked. "We know now that there is nothing to be ashamed about with regards to the virus, with regards to testing, with regards to how we manage our health, but often what we know does not match the stories we tell."

Like the speakers that came before him, Mckesson used the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight the need for a greater African-American presence within America's health care system and the profound harm that can occur when a population places little trust in their medical providers. According to Mckesson, much of this distrust stems from a lack of representation within an industry that has a long track record of racially biased treatment.

Mckesson condemned the medical industry as "a field that is often paternalistic at best and hostile at worst," and intimated that the best way to reduce significant health disparities in the black community, including those associated with HIV, would be to create health care spaces where providers are connected to the communities they work with, and where patients feel as if their needs are being met with compassion, understanding and cultural competence -- spaces where it is made clear that black lives mattered.