For more than a century, our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have been at the center of the fight for full equality — forging leaders and movements that continue to push the moral arc of our nation toward justice. Today, HBCUs remain at the heart of our essential social justice movements. And that places them in a unique position to help tackle an urgent reality many of their students are facing — the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS on Black young people.
I’ve spent my academic career at HBCUs where, like many, I have been shaped by a legacy of social justice and inspired by both those who came before me and the student activists who fought alongside me. Now, as an advocate with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, I work with students and leaders at HBCUs to empower and support LGBTQ students on campus, providing them tools and resources for expanding equality at the intersections of multiple identities.
Today, I and many other leaders across organizations and institutions, are also uniting in the fight to address the global epidemic of HIV and AIDS, which affects so many of the young people we work with.
The extent of the crisis is illustrated by staggering numbers: Despite steadily declining HIV infection rates overall in the U.S., 80 percent of newly diagnosed people between the ages of 20 and 24 are Black. Though Black people are just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 44 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2016. And among youth diagnosed with HIV in 2015, 55 percent were gay or bisexual Black men. One in two Black gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. And, according to current estimates, more than half of Black transgender women are living with HIV.
This disproportionate impact on Black young people is compounded at HBCUs, which are largely located in the South where the grip of HIV is its most fierce. Southern states today account for an estimated 44 percent of all people living with an HIV diagnosis in the U.S., despite having only about one third of the nation’s population.
While the causes of this disparity are multifaceted, at the heart lies an intersection of inequities and injustices — including stigma. Black Americans experience greater levels of HIV-related stigma than any other racial or ethnic group. And for Black trans women and young Black men who engage in sexual activity with other men, we know that institutional stigma is especially pervasive and directly related to poor health outcomes. In part because of this stigma, too many young people do not know the prevalence of HIV, much less their own status.
While effective sex education is key to combating HIV infection, the number of states actually requiring students to learn about HIV has gone down over the past few years, which can in part be traced to this current administration’s push towards abstinence-only sex education. And while President Trump announced a commitment to stopping the spread of HIV, unfortunately, this administration continues to undermine the very tools we need to reach that noble goal. Instead of working to expand health care to the communities that need it, this administration continues to threaten to cut Medicaid, to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and to strip non-discrimination protections in health care.
In the face of this intersection of injustices, HBCUs are uniquely positioned to address the current health crisis, and we already have inspiring examples to look to. Spelman College and Morehouse College are both providing critical programming and outreach, including supporting peer educators in working to reduce health disparities. Morehouse is also providing PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) — the life-saving HIV preventative drug — to students at its Campus Health Center. Jackson State University provides comprehensive HIV education on campus to students and employees, and Prairie View A&M empowers students to help educate their peers on generating better health outcomes. Many of these crucial interventions are low-cost, easy to expand and enhance student engagement.
For HBCUs — and for all institutes of higher education — addressing this crisis and the underlying conditions fueling it is a moral imperative and key to the health and welfare of their students. As students and academic leaders look to expand equality and address fundamental injustices facing our nation, we must, as part of our movement, commit to fighting the HIV and AIDS epidemic on campus and beyond.
LESLIE HALL is director of the Human Rights Campaign's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program.