AIDS and "Black Denial"

Is it white kids or black kids who are wrecking their communities the worst? This week, the pendulum swung back to blaming young black men after the release of a new report on the 20th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic showing 15% of young gay black men are HIV-positive.

Bob Herbert, an African American columnist for the New York Times, called for black leaders to issue "thundering" demands to stop "the self-destructive sexual behavior and drug use ... that have inflicted gruesome damage on one generation after another of young black Americans." For Herbert, the issue is bad attitude and behavior: "One of the biggest obstacles to controlling the spread of the AIDS virus among young blacks is denial."

As with older whites who pretend no suburban kids until today's ever harbored guns, dope, or bad values, the illusion among older African Americans such as Herbert that drugs, AIDS, and irresponsibility are scourges of "young blacks" is the worst denial of all. Today, no one is creating more fear and anger at young black people than their own elders.

Reality is more complex, for those who go beyond press sensation and political negativism. In fact, today's younger black generation is showing remarkable resistance to drug abuse, imprisonment, and other self-destructive tendencies despite massive deterioration in well-being inflicted by older generations and their business and political leaders. Meanwhile, baby-boom blacks, whose affluence has risen for 30 years, are mired in drug abuse, rising crime, and disarray -- and the fastest-rising AIDS rate of any group.

As among whites, the "wealth gap" between African-American generations is massive and growing. Since 1970, the real, median family income of blacks 45 and older has leaped 70% while blacks under 25 have seen a staggering 40% drop in real income. Today, the average black 50-year-old has a family income of $45,000; the average black 21 year-old, $13,000 -- the largest age gap on record. The rising black education and employment achievements won by civil rights activism and sacrifice in the 1950s and 1960s eventually rewarded older blacks with rising incomes.

Yet, trends among younger blacks have gone backward: the lowest real incomes in four decades. Many older blacks, including progressives such as Herbert, posit character and behavior flaws in younger blacks, the same as Jim Crow segregationists in decades past blamed for the poverty of African Americans in general. But the reason for today's stark generational split is not "self destructive" behavior among younger blacks. In truth, the most startling development is that better-off, older African Americans are the ones displaying baffling personal behavior crises -- a trend parallel to that of whites. Among blacks, 80% of drug-related deaths today occur among those 35 and older -- the same age group show escalating felony arrest and imprisonment rates. Cumulative AIDS diagnosis levels rose 450% among younger blacks over the past decade (allowing for a 10-year lag between HIV infection and AIDS diagnosis), but they increased even faster among blacks over age 40 -- up 600%. In 2000, for the first time, blacks 35 and older approached half of new African-American HIV infectees (including a majority among males).

In California, deaths among blacks 30 and older from heroin, cocaine, and speed leaped 50% and imprisonments rose by 134 per 100,000 population -- the largest increase of any group (though older whites showed greater percentage increases). Meanwhile, defying perception and theory alike, young black men showed huge declines in crime and imprisonment during the 1990s. Among California black teens, drug deaths fell to near zero in the late 1990s and imprisonment rates dropped by an amazing 690 per 100,000 population -- the most rapid improvements of any group.

Overall, felony arrest rates among black teens fell 30% over the last generation -- but their parent generation's felony rates soared 70%. To be sure, racist policing and sentencing, especially war on drugs policies, account for some of the rise among older blacks -- but how did younger blacks escape these measures? In part, by sharply cutting drug abuse. During the 1990s, drug overdose deaths dropped by half among black teens (only 20 were recorded in the entire nation in 1998) but skyrocketed 250% among blacks 35 and older (1,812 drug deaths in 1998).

Ignoring the startling trends, Herbert declares, "thousands upon thousands of young blacks (are) succumbing to the ravages of destructive sexual behavior, drug use and (in so many of these cases) the emotional pain of self-loathing, depression and despair." Herbert is evidently referring to black psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint's assertion that suicide doubled among black male teens from 1980 to 1995, creating "a mental health crisis." However, this trend is dubious. Poussaint acknowledges today's "improved reporting methods" may have created an artificial "increase" in black youth suicides by correcting for their "historic underreporting." In fact, deaths from suicidal causes (self-inflicted gunshots, drug overdoses, hangings, and undetermined deaths) among black males has followed a cyclical, generally declining pattern for 30 years. By the late 1990s, a black male teen was only half as likely to die from suicidal causes as his 1970 counterpart. In short, black teens today appear less self-destructive, particularly with drugs, than their elders were as youths and are grownups.

These figures are easily accessible in Centers for Disease Control HIV/AIDS surveillance reports, FBI and state crime reports, and National Center for Health Statistics records. Why, then, aren't black leaders openly discussing their profound implications?

For it's a bitter irony that serious problems that do afflict young blacks appear directly traceable to the worsening attitudes and behaviors of middle-aged Americans of all colors. Industrial abandonment of inner cities led to high unemployment and widespread poverty among younger African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. Skyrocketing hard-drug abuse and family disarray among older blacks and whites created a massive demand for services such as drugs and prostitution that spawned the 1980s and early-1990s increases in inner-city gangs, gun violence, and HIV infection. Studies repeatedly show that high rates of HIV are found among those suffering extreme poverty, homelessness, prostitution, "survival sex" (trading sex for essentials), and violent abuses. San Francisco/Berkeley Young Men's surveys found most infected gay men of all colors had much older partners and clients (and high rates of HIV infection: 21% among young gay black men in the Bay Area 10 years ago, above the 15% triggering today's alarms).

Contrary to the image created by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy and journalists who buy into it, AIDS is a product of poverty and the abuses that go with it, not a teenage attitude and behavior problem. Herbert is correct that blacks (and all races) will more effectively confront AIDS when homosexuality is more openly acknowledged and accepted. Along with that attitude change, the reflex among both black and white adults to blame major social problems on bad behaviors among "today's young people" is equally essential to ending the denial.

Mike Males' writings, data sources, and other information can be found at


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