Anti-Black Racism Has Been Central to the Structuring of HIV Vulnerability in the U.S. and Globally

Ted Kerr
Original Article:

Most HIV prevention focuses on reducing or altering minority people’s behaviors: Getting sex workers to stop working; men who have sex with men to use condoms for anal sex; people who inject drugs to not use drugs or to use clean needles. These strategies have saved lives, though they also shape how we think of populations most impacted and divert attention away from the structures that impact the ongoing crisis. Early in the epidemic theorist Cindy Patton coined the term queer intimacies, suggesting HIV/AIDS situates those living with, at most risk, and most impacted by HIV in the realm of the queer, the different, those who must be managed. In his new book, Antiblack Racism and the AIDS Epidemic: State Intimacies, Adam M. Geary works to flip the script, arguing that within HIV movements we need to focus on the state and the role it plays in reducing life chances for those most impacted, leading with the fact the state is rooted in antiblack racism. Geary is part of a long legacy of thinkers who work to expose ways in which violent systems govern our lives. In the interview below with Ted Kerr, he discusses his influences, the book, and ways in which we can understand homophobia as fueling current HIV prevention methods.

Can you tell us a bit about what led you to write the book? Your life before you wrote it? Your influences?

The route to a book, or any significant intellectual project, is always somewhat circuitous. Or at least, it is for me. So there are a number of leads into this book, not all of which were clear to me at the time. But looking back, I can say that this book emerged out of a sense of exhaustion with AIDS prevention as it has been organized: politically, theoretically, emotionally, technically. And then the guilt and shame around that. We’re all supposed to be eager practitioners of risk reduction protocols, and as a gay man who came of age in the AIDS era, I’ve been bombarded with all of that. And let’s just say that I’m exhausted by it. So when I began thinking about a dissertation — I pursued my doctorate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the late 1990s and early 2000s — I decided that I wanted to think through this behemoth called "AIDS prevention": what it is as a project of intervening in a viral epidemic. Part of that — though something that didn’t really enter the dissertation per se — was also: why does it feel so lousy to those of us targeted by it, or at least, to me?

What I came to understand in writing my dissertation was that AIDS prevention as it has been organized presumes to intervene in a social and environmental catastrophe through the cultivation of personal and communal responsibility, and secondarily, through massive financial transfers to pharmaceutical companies in pursuit of high-tech "cures." Behaviors and technologies: classic neoliberalism. The burden not only of surviving, but of managing or ending this epidemic has been thrown back onto the folks most affected by it, as their responsibility, including their responsibility to offer themselves up for medical experimentation. Which is to say that the AIDS epidemic has been staged as an ethical drama: can people who’ve obviously behaved in ways that have put them at risk be lured into ethical transformation so as to behave better? (This is one of the key reasons that AIDS prevention feels so bad, I think: it’s staged as a permanent referendum on our ethics. As though "bad behaviors" has ever been a good enough explanation for a health catastrophe or as though good behavior has ever solved one.)

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