Race, stigma, and black manhood

Cleo Manago | 6/18/2008, 5 p.m.

Founder and CEO, AmASSI Health, Wellness and Cultural Centers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of HIV is uniquely out of control among African Americans. CDC data indicate that black communities experienced as a percentage of all new HIV/AIDS cases from 25 percent in 1981 to 50 percent in 2001. Among black males, the percentage among all new cases declined from 71% in 1983 to 44% in 1996--but the rate of new infections held steady over those years. This was contrary to some predictions made in the early 1990s that cases among black males would drop to about 25 percent of new diagnoses. These predictions were probably based on notions that black males at risk for HIV/AIDS would--as the white gay community has done--"manage" their epidemic, therefore contributing to the protection of black females and other black males. That did not occur. Thirty years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the HIV virus has morphed in the United States into a particularly black problem - we make up over half of new cases and around 1 in 50 sexually active black adults are estimated to be infected compared to less than 1 in 300 whites and Mexican Americans. As a community we must understand the reasons for this, and find solutions fast.
To efficiently resolve any problem it is important to discover its root causes. And solutions to a unique circumstance require examination of its unique parts.
The slavery experience in America and its contemporary manifestations are unique to African Americans. Historically, blacks in America have endured a very deliberate, brutal, and culturally disruptive brand of racism. Current symptoms of slavery and racism include an acculturated and unresolved fear among Blacks of White (or institutional) backlash and judgment. Recognizing the lingering and present-day symptoms of the slave experience is typically a challenge for Blacks. Many prefer just to avoid the topic. But finally addressing it may explain challenges still faced in the community, including the apparent inability to prevent HIV/AIDS.
It is now a new day. America may finally have its first president of African descent. In light of this potential progress, maybe we can begin to actively explore and repair the damage done to Black people and culture, and its impact on modern-day life.
Stigmaphobia, a barrier to black HIV success
Since slavery, up until very recently, being black and having a perspective that challenged institutionalized racism could be lethal. It could compromise one's employability, quality of life and reputation. Under these conditions, blacks became self-conscious about taking action and about speaking their mind, even to each other, because of a socially induced lack of trust (i.e. Willie Lynch). A fear-driven silencing of black voices resulted in something this writer calls "stigmaphobia"-a fear of being stigmatized (again) by mainstream America or whites.
When watching T.V. news or hearing of terrible events or crime suspects, many blacks repeat to themselves the mantra "God, please don't let them be black." This is a common example of stigmaphobia.
Being stigmatized often resulted in Blacks suffering increased societal abuses--disenfranchisement, incarceration, and unemployment. And so for centuries, fear or terror among blacks resulted in the repression of reasoning or critical examination of difficult problems (or critical thinking). This was and is true particularly among males who were arbitrarily targeted by the most deadly versions of racial violence, e.g., Emmet Till.
Living in a patriarchal (male-dominated) country that privileged being a man, most black males rarely had opportunity to be a man (meaning: an adult male human being with the full capacity to participate in the advancement, success, protection and respect of his people, family, self and community). The post-slavery influence of this on Black males persists as high incarceration rates, health disparities, and unemployment (50 percent of black males in Richmond, California, and New York City are unemployed), and now, high HIV rates.
Black history in America has taken a huge toll on black manhood, community and self-concept. black humiliation, a cause and by-product of stigmaphobia, has been a primary immobilizer of Black action and protection against communicable dangers. It has also been a contributing factor to sexism and anti-homosexual attitudes in black communities.
The recent DL, or down low hype has convinced many that black women are the most impacted by HIV. The fact is, black males, by a wide (2:1) margin, are still the disproportionate majority of black HIV/AIDS cases in the United States. The on-going risk to black women results from that black males have yet to be effectively served by many existing prevention programs. Typically, they do not address or engage issues relevant to cultural affirmation, critical thinking, and internalized oppression, sexual abuse, or manhood insecurities.