Article on black HIV statistics promoted racial stereotypes

Posted on 26 Mar 2009 at 2:19pm
By Matthew B. Zrebski Guest Commentator

I’d like to present some concerns raised by the article, "African-Americans now account for half of new HIV/AIDS cases in Dallas County," (Dallas Voice, March 20).

This article continues to perpetuate the notion that the transmission of HIV from black men to black women is largely due to "on the down low" behavior:

"Nobles also noted that HIV/AIDS has increased dramatically in recent years among black women, many of whom contract the disease from men who have gay sex on ‘the down low.’ In 2007, for example, 81 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases were in males, but 32 percent of new cases among blacks were in females.

"’They have a gay lifestyle but in the public they have a wife or a girlfriend, and so the disease is crossing over rather rapidly in this particular population,’ Nobles said."

It is extremely important to note that in scientific literature, this has been discounted, or at least viewed as highly suspect.

The careless use of such claims to explain the disproportionate infection rate among black women is based on anecdotal evidence and is not scientific in the least. It serves to demoralize the black community and may even hurt research efforts to discover the true reasons behind the trends.

I would also like to know how the data in Dallas was gathered. Are we going to see a radically different number only months from now as we did in D.C.?

As many are aware, the recent "3 percent" number of infected Washington residents has been all over the news and has been the subject of myriad press conferences by health officials. But in January 2008, American Medical News reported that 5 percent (or 1 in 20) of D.C. residents were HIV-positive.

Not 3 percent, but 5 percent. This is a 40 percent drop.

So is there actually reason to celebrate in D.C.? A 40 percent drop in HIV infections in a single year is significant, yes?

Sarcasm aside, the better question is: How is this data being gathered?

And the biggest question is: Why are journalists so quick to report numbers like this and never check previous statistics and studies?

I know the Voice’s concern is Dallas and not D.C. But I worry that the sloppy data gathering may be an issue everywhere.

I have been looking at comments on many blogs where the D.C. numbers — and now Dallas numbers — have been reported.

There’s this general acceptance that African-Americans are simply "different," "more promiscuous," "more homophobic," etc. And when I’m teaching inner-city, at-risk youth and they are handed pamphlets for Black HIV Testing Day — and they say things like, "Why is our community too stupid to not get AIDS," my heart sinks.

This is a dangerous sort of racism. The reasons given by the media are oversimplified in an attempt to explain disproportionate numbers that make no epidemiological sense.

I ask Dallas Voice and the rest of the media to consider these issues and make sure that great care is given when hurling accusations at minority communities.

Ironically, in an effort to "help," I fear health care practitioners may be missing the actual causation of this trend among African-Americans and in the process, are promoting racial stereotypes.

Does it truly add up — just using common sense — that "black homophobia" can account for 50 percent of all HIV cases in the U.S., but African-Americans only make up 13 percent of the population?

That’s an absolutely staggering number. And I think harder questions and better research must be conducted to truly understand what is going on.

Matthew B. Zrebski is a teacher and theater practitioner in Portland, Oregon.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 27, 2009.

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