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I'm The CEO Of The Black AIDS Institute, Here To Tell You...We're In Trouble

There is no way to end HIV in America without ending HIV in Black America.

As Told To

As Told To is a recurring segment on xoNecole where real women are given a platform to tell their stories in first-person narrative as told to a writer.

This is Raniyah Copeland's story, as told to Charmin Michelle.

My voice...is thunderous. And I keep it that way.

I regularly call out pharmaceutical companies, research institutions, and HIV organizations who have leadership and boards that do not look like or come from the communities that they serve. I get to connect with people across the country and the world in efforts to end HIV in Black communities. I meet with Black faith leaders, community activists researchers, Black leaders in federal government, and so many more.

Community is a huge component within the HIV movement, and I love being in the forefront. I proudly do this work every day.

I'm the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. A SoCal native, I currently living in South LA with my amazing children and my husband. I come from a big family (I'm one of five kids), my parents are active and prominent members of the Nation of Islam, which is why we relocated from the East Coast to California. Growing up as a Black Muslim, my Blackness and the oppressive systems within the U.S. were always centered in the experiences that we had.

From a very young age, my parents explained how almost every oppression that Black people experience (increased rates of poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality) was linked back to how anti-Blackness showed up in overt and covert ways to shape every aspect of Black life. I was taught that we had to give forward to honor those who had given so much, to know the freedoms we did have. Over time, I saw the way inadequate health systems were directly impacting the well-being and length of Black lives. I knew I wanted my future contributions to consist of ensuring Black people could live long and healthy lives.

I attended UC Berkeley for undergrad and studied public health and African American studies, with plans of becoming a doctor. During that time, I studied more about HIV and Black communities and saw how heavily linked HIV rates were to homophobia, intimate partner violence, the 'war against drugs', and so many other things that I didn't know impacted HIV rates. After undergrad, I enrolled in a post baccalaureate program, where I was taking science classes in preparation to apply for med school, while working as a health educator at Planned Parenthood. Here, is where much of my outlook on the virus had developed.

So ladies, let's talk about it...

I once delivered an HIV-positive test result to a young Black gay man. When he was told he was HIV-positive, he was not surprised. He actually thought because he was Black and gay, it was inevitable that he would acquire HIV. I was saddened and devastated on so many levels.

You see, for Black folks, our health is so much larger than any individual decision we make. HIV is one of the most significant diseases where those who have historically been given the least, are the most impacted.

When I found out about the Black AIDS Institute, I knew the organization was a place where I could live out my personal values and make a true change as it pertains to the health of Black communities. It's amazing that almost four decades into this pandemic, we can say we have the tools to end HIV within our lifetime, which from a public health perspective, that is extraordinary!

However, there is no way to end HIV in America without ending HIV in Black America.

And in order to end HIV in Black America, we have to respond to the systemic reasons Black people have HIV at such high rates. It's not because we have sex with more people, or use more drugs. Nor does it have anything do to with our individual behavior. We have a higher rate of HIV in Black communities because HIV flourishes in systems of oppression. Read that again and again—as many times as you need—HIV flourishes in systems of oppression. If we can respond to the roots of systemic racism in this country, we will not only end HIV, but also end health inequities that plague Black Americans.

This has proven difficult because we don't like to talk about it. We rule out that this is a true pandemic, one of our firsts. And ladies, as CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the most shocking statistic in the HIV pandemic as it relates to us, is that while new HIV infections among Black women have declined 21 percent from 2010-2016, Black women still account for 6/10 new HIV cases.

And we're concerned.

Not that the rates have declined, this is always great news. But those of us who work in the HIV field worry that the success that we've seen with decreasing new HIV cases, will be reversed because healthcare access may be limited due to COVID. In the last six months, COVID-19 has transformed the world, infecting more than 15 million people and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The virus also has had an indelible impact not only on the well-being of people living with HIV/AIDS, but potentially on the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic itself.

I think back to the time when Olga Osminkina-Jones, senior vice president for the consumer goods company, Reckitt Benckiser, said during the 23rd International AIDS Conference:

"COVID is threatening to erase a whole generation of effort that we have put into the fight against AIDS and HIV."

An entire generation of work, ladies. So, like her, I am well aware of the importance of having, and continuing, this conversation.

Why? Because here are the harsh facts, the COVID-19 crisis has drummed up another familiar theme: like HIV/AIDS, Black people being disproportionately impacted.

Black people acquire COVID at rates 2.6 higher than our white counterparts, are hospitalized at rates 4.7 higher than our white counterparts, and die at rates 2.1 higher than our white counterparts.

All is not lost, I have so many wonderful stories about working in HIV advocacy. One of the best things about my job is how I get to connect with people across the country and the world in efforts to end HIV in Black communities. One of my favorite experiences is when I get to meet with Black mothers who have been impacted by HIV. I've met Black mothers who are living with HIV and have taken great care and sacrifice to birth their children, most of whom are HIV-free, by engaging in care systems.

I've met many Black mothers who are boldly loving their son or trans daughter and are living with HIV. They are supporting and shielding their children through the stigma they experience. I've met Black mothers who lost their children in the HIV movement and have dedicated their lives to ensuring that others' children can live long and healthy lives. As a mother myself, the courage that Black mothers have shown in the HIV movement gives me chills.

--

In the end, the work I put into this space, will hopefully one day, allow my boys to live in a world where they don't have a fear of acquiring HIV. I hope my legacy is one where I contribute to a world where Black people are able to live long and healthy lives, free of stigma, and where Black health and well-being, are paramount.

To keep up with Raniyah, follow her on Instagram @raniyahcopeland. Also, visit blackaids.org for more ways to get involved with the Black AIDS Institute.

Feature image courtesy of Raniyah Copeland

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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