When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently issued a public apology after it was revealed that researchers from the U. S. Public Health Service intentionally infected Guatemalan patients with sexually transmitted diseases, the revelation recalled for many Americans unfortunate memories of the Tuskegee experiment. Though the cases had some clear differences (namely that in Guatemala, researchers affiliated with the U.S. government stand accused of infecting unsuspecting patients with a disease, while in Tuskegee they stand accused of intentionally withholding lifesaving treatment) the fundamental tragedy remains the same. The worst-case scenario is that our government preyed upon some of humanity's most powerless. The best-case scenario is that it looked the other way as others did. Any way you slice it our government failed to live up to the most basic tenets of human decency, and certainly to the greatness that is our democracy.
In reading about the Guatemala travesty, I began thinking that for all of the flaws that our great yet imperfect country may have, at least I can take comfort in knowing that we are evolving for the better and that nothing like that will ever happen again. Not in my lifetime. And then I realized that it is. Right now. Yet it is as though there is more collective outrage about medical travesties that happened decades ago than about the ones happening before our very eyes today.
Clearly I am not the only one who feels this way.
My first reaction to his anger: It's about damn time.
My second reaction: He shouldn't be angry with the hecklers but angry that they are right. As the hecklers challenged President Obama on his administration's seemingly lackluster commitment to battling AIDS the president sternly replied, "One of the great things about being a Democrat is, we like arguing with each other. But to the folks concerned about AIDS funding, I would say 'take a look at what the Republican leadership has to say about AIDS funding.'"
As far as retorts go that strikes me a little like Sarah Palin threatening, "Well if you think I'm an intellectual lightweight you just wait until you meet my friend Christine O'Donnell." My point is if the president's best defense is that at least he's better than the alternative, which is a party comprised of candidates who think condoms are irrelevant to the fight against AIDS (speaking of O'donnell) and that gay men and sexually active single women should be marginalized (speaking of too many GOP candidates to name), then isn't that basically like admitting he doesn't really have a strong defense at all?
Which brings me to this question. If one preventable disease was emerging as the single biggest killer of members of a minority community and a white president appeared to treat the issue as an after thought, what would the reaction of the NAACP or the National Council of La Raza or (insert your own group here) be? Yet I am beginning to get the distinct impression that the AIDS crisis affecting all Americans, but officially annihilating people who look like me, ranks somewhere on the president's list of priorities between his wife's childhood obesity initiative and whether or not to neuter Bo, the family dog.
And in case you haven't noticed, this president is black.
Now before those of you who love the president (I'm looking at you, Mom) fire off your angry e-mails to me about how many other pressing issues he has before him, and how he must focus on issues that affect all Americans, not just black Americans, you can save your ink, because I have actually written that piece before.
And I still happen to believe it. But I also happen to believe that just as I do not want others to hold President Obama to different, unfair standards because he is black (even though some clearly do) I am also not going to hold him to a different, lesser, standard because he is black.
AIDS is no longer just the leading cause of death of black women my age, but it is becoming one of the leading causes of death among black people, period. According to the latest CDC numbers half of those living with HIV in this country are now black, even though we make up approximately 13 percent of the population. To put those figures in context, 1 in 22 black Americans is at risk for being diagnosed with HIV in our lifetime.
I expect any president sitting in the White House to not only care about numbers like these, but to vocally and passionately say that they do publicly and to flex some serious policy muscle to back it up -- regardless of what color that president is. But here is the growing concern that I am beginning to have about this particular president on this particular issue. It's long been known that some women who become the first in their companies to be promoted fear being seen as "too pro-women" in the eyes of their male peers, and subsequently bend so far over to accommodate that fear that they end up not really helping other women at all, thus defeating one of the greatest arguments for diversity. I similarly fear that the president may bend over so far to prove people like me who said he is "the president of all Americans, not just black Americans" right, that he may just break his back, politically and policy speaking, in the process.
I realize that the administration can't just write a blank check when it comes to funding AIDS prevention efforts, but I'm not asking for that. I'm asking that just as he and his wife use the power of their image so effectively to inspire black Americans on a host of other issues -- from eating healthier to placing a greater value on education -- that they use their image to inspire more black Americans to take greater care with their sexual health. It's something I know they have the capacity to do because they have done it before -- in Africa where they championed the importance of AIDS awareness before adoring crowds who welcomed the then-U.S. Senator and his beautiful wife like rockstars. (Click here to see video of the Obamas abroad discussing the issue of AIDS with the people of Africa.)
Considering Washington, D.C. has one of the worst per capita AIDS rates in the nation, I'm wondering why the White House hasn't duplicated the president and first lady's AIDS testing promotion efforts in Africa, right in their own backyard.
Or just as the White House recently hosted a private screening of the phenomenal new documentary on education reform Waiting for "Superman," no doubt in part to demonstrate and publicize the administration's commitment to that issue, how about hosting a private screening of the phenomenal new documentary, The Other City about efforts to address the AIDS epidemic in our nation's capitol?
Unless of course the White House is afraid that a film that calls attention to the failures of public officials to address this crisis might hit too close to home for its current occupant.
Now I know there are those of you reading this who feel strongly that AIDS is a preventable disease and therefore our efforts and resources are better spent on diseases we have no idea how to prevent, from Parkinson's to certain forms of cancer. But here's what I would say. People choose to smoke cigarettes but the community-wide collateral damage of those who do not eventually became so great (from children whose health is affected by a parent who smokes, to families that are devastated emotionally and financially when a loved one dies from or is incapacitated by a smoking related illness) that it warranted the government to take action and regulate the tobacco industry. And I can tell you this much: there are a lot more people who have sex than smoke. So it is in all of our interests to stop pretending this is someone else's problem. Because based purely on the numbers, if that someone else isn't already someone close to you, it will be soon.
Which brings me to Ronald Regan.
Though progressives may have a litany of reasons to criticize the Reagan presidency, Americans of all political stripes should be able to agree on at least one. Ronald Reagan all but ignored the AIDS crisis that unfolded during his administration, not even acknowledging the disease publicly until more than 20,000 Americans had already died from it. His silence did more than any other president to date to help the disease, and it's greatest co-conspirator -- ignorance about the disease -- to spread. (During the 2008 primary when President Obama controversially credited Reagan with changing the trajectory of America in a way Presidents Clinton and Nixon did not, I don't think this is what he had in mind.) But if the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control continue moving in the direction that they are then Reagan may soon have some competition for title of "President who Could Have Done the Most to Tackle the American AIDS crisis but didn't."
In July the Obama administration unveiled its official National HIV/AIDS Strategy. While the goals it outlined ("reducing the number of new infections, increasing access to care and optimizing health outcomes for people living with HIV and AIDS, and reducing health-related disparities") are certainly laudable, ultimately they only matter if the president is willing to expend his public political capital on the fight. So far he -- and the first lady -- appear hesitant to do so. The role that race may be playing in that calculation appears further evidenced by how little the racial disparities of this disease are mentioned in his public remarks on the topic. (And how little it comes up in White House documents on the topic, save for one posting on the White House website on black men and AIDS.)
At the ceremony outlining the administration's AIDS strategy the president said:
..."We have learned what we can do to stop the spread of the disease...And we've been reminded of our obligations to one another -- obligations that, like the virus itself, transcend barriers of race or station or sexual orientation or faith or nationality. So the question is not whether we know what to do, but whether we will do it. Whether we will fulfill those obligations; whether we will marshal our resources and the political will to confront a tragedy that is preventable."
Here's hoping the president is finally angry enough to marshal the political will to confront this preventable tragedy.
This post originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.