USA Today Column: Time to Redouble AIDS Fight in Black Community

*Cross-posted from USA Today

On this World AIDS Day, as the world focuses its attention on the epidemic around the globe, we cannot forget there is an HIV crisis raging right here in our own backyards.

Blacks are more likely to become infected, less likely to get treatment, less likely to know they have the disease and more likely to die from HIV and AIDS than any other race.

Yet a dangerous mix of complacency, cultural stigma and outright denial continues to fuel this epidemic in our communities.

The late Dorothy Height— a civil rights pioneer and longtime chair of the National Council of Negro Women— once likened the fight against AIDS to the most important civil rights crusades of our time. She said, we must "talk about HIV, as we talk about jobs, as we talk about housing, as we talk about civil rights." She was right.

Her words carry new urgency in light of a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that tells us while African Americans make up just 14% of the U.S. population, they account for almost half (44%) of all new HIV infections in the nation every year. Black women also continue to be hard hit, making up nearly 60% of all infections among women each year.

But most troubling is news from the same report, which shows that while new HIV infections have stayed stable across the board from 2006 to 2008, one group — young black gay and bisexual men — have experienced an astronomical increase of 48% in just three years in HIV infections.

Staggering statistics

These statistics are mind-boggling and heart-breaking. Even more, they remind us that we will never overcome the scourge of HIV until and unless we confront the demons in our own communities that have allowed it to flourish: stigma and homophobia. Together, they prevent far too many in our community from seeking testing, prevention and treatment.

In light of the recent and troubling data showing stark increases in HIV infections among our young gay and bisexual men, we must first purge our own hearts of this prejudice and then rally together as a community to rid homophobia from our culture.

Like members of any family, we will sometimes disagree; we may not see eye to eye and the conversation may be uncomfortable. But we cannot ignore this challenge. What happens to one member of our family happens to us all. And if we are to stand for civil rights, we must stand for civil rights for all.

That means we in the black community must work to create safe spaces in our homes, schools and places of worship to talk openly about HIV. The time to start is now.

Coordinated effort

Over the past year, the NAACP along with some of the nation's foremost African-American organizations has joined forces with the Obama administration and the CDC to fight HIV in every corner of our communities. Together, we have committed to extend our collective reach and strength to integrate HIV prevention into everything we do: at our national conventions, through our media outlets and in our local chapters across the nation.

If you are reading this, the responsibility also starts with you: Take an HIV test. Know your status. Protect yourself and speak out against homophobia and the stigma attached to HIV whenever possible. We can no longer be silent as too many of our sisters and brothers grow ill and perish from this disease.

Together and individually, we must confront this threat with the same tireless energy we have exhibited in our fight for better jobs, better housing and in the ongoing struggle to ensure civil rights for all.

Roslyn M. Brock is chairman of the NAACP's Board of Directors. Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP.