Frontline” tackles one of the country’s thornier and more invisible problems on Tuesday with “Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” which tries to pin down why rates of AIDS and H.I.V. infection are disproportionately high among black Americans. The program focuses largely on institutional causes that have been suggested by various studies, a play-it-safe approach that omits a core question: With so much known about the disease and so many years of safe-sex messages out there, how can anyone still be cavalier or uninformed about this subject?“Today in America, 152 people will become infected with H.I.V.,” a speaker is telling a World AIDS Day gathering as the program opens. “Half of them will be black. Today in America, two-thirds of the new H.I.V. cases among women will be black. Today in America, 70 percent of the new H.I.V. cases among youth will be black.”
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From there the program, directed by Renata Simone, embarks on a history lesson, tracing how AIDS was almost immediately typecast as a disease of gay white men, even though some of the earliest cases were in black men. That led to an indifference among blacks at the start of the epidemic, and soon along came the drug nightmare of the 1990s, with sex being traded for a fix, rampant needle sharing and resistance to needle-exchange programs that sought to do something about the problem. Endemic poverty in black America of course exacerbated everything about the AIDS crisis.
Black leaders acknowledge that they failed to take the kind of vocal role in the early years that they had been known for in civil rights battles and other struggles. “I didn’t do what I could have done and should have done,” Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and a former chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., says bluntly.
Churches receive particular criticism for not stepping up, and abstinence-only versions of sex education are also faulted. (“Ignorance makes you more susceptible to the virus,” one young woman says.)