The sheer volume of bile spewing from the mouth of the Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, is staggering. But just as awe-inducing, and stomach-churning, is the unrestrained breadth of its variety, which makes putting the offenses in order — if one were inclined to — nearly impossible.
But high on any list — on a par with the racism, sexism, misogyny, paternalistic plantation thinking and bias cloaked in benevolence — has to be Sterling’s attempt to AIDS-shame Magic Johnson.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that aired on Monday, Sterling asked about Johnson:
“What has he done? Can you tell me? Big Magic Johnson, what has he done? He’s got AIDS.”
For the record, as Cooper pointed out, Johnson has disclosed that he has H.I.V. but there is no evidence that his condition has ever progressed to AIDS.
“What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then goes and catches H.I.V.? Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background.”
And there’s more:
“Here’s a man, I don’t know if I should say this, he acts so holy. He made love with every girl in every city in America, and he had AIDS, and when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him. I hoped he could live and be well. I didn’t criticize him. I could have. Is he an example for children?”
This line of attack on Johnson is one of the most revolting things to come out of this whole revolting episode. It feeds into the ignorance about the disease itself and the stigma attached to it that is an enormous hindrance to bringing it more under control in this country.
Let’s start here: Contracting H.I.V. (or AIDS) is not evidence of a character defect. It is simply a disease and should be treated as such. The way that so many people, like Sterling, seem to separate out and shun people with communicable diseases — particularly sex-related ones —is outrageous and mustn’t be tolerated and glossed over.
Does behavior play a large role — possibly the central role — in the spread of H.I.V.? Of course, but behavior is also a major cause of many diseases: heart disease, diabetes, and in some cases even cancer.
We must extend our empathy and demonstrate our compassion toward all people living with and dealing with any disease, and encourage better understanding and education to reduce the number of people affected by such illnesses.
What we don’t need is a man of Sterling’s dubious motives and questionable character spreading pernicious misinformation and hurtful poison about a disease he seems to little understand.
One thing that Sterling said does, in fact, hold a grain of truth: “You know, because he has money, he’s able to treat himself.” It is true that Johnson’s wealth means that he is able to afford the best medical care, while far too many people living with H.I.V. and AIDS suffer not only for lack of quality health care but also lack of funds, food and adequate housing.
That said, Johnson is still a shining example to people living with the disease that it doesn’t have to be life ending, that you can remain healthy, have a family, have a career and have a life.
And, he is a particularly potent symbol because he is African-American, because as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out:
“African-Americans accounted for an estimated 44 percent of all new H.I.V. infections among adults and adolescents (age 13 or older) in 2010, despite representing only 12 percent of the U.S. population; considering the smaller size of the African-American population in the United States, this represents a population rate that is eight times that of whites over all.”
Some of the problem is that —partly because of lack of education, economics and H.I.V. stigma — “almost 85,000 H.I.V.-infected people in the African-American community in 2010 were unaware of their H.I.V. status.”
And if people don’t know they are infected, they can’t be in care and controlling the disease, and therefore become highly infectious to other people.
(A study has shown that a person with H.I.V. who takes medication early on and has the disease under control reduces his or her transmission rate by 96 percent.)
Furthermore, stigma plays a role in people’s unwillingness to disclose a positive diagnosis, furthering the likelihood of more transmission.
Magic Johnson, much to his credit, revealed his H.I.V.-positive status more than 20 years ago and has since been, personally and through the foundation that bears his name, an advocate for H.I.V./AIDS awareness and prevention.
As Johnson said in an interview with Cooper on Tuesday, regarding Sterling and his comments on his H.I.V. status:
“The stigma is still there. We know that. We’ve been fighting it for years, and what we want to continue to do is just educate the world that it’s O.K., that you can high-five a person who has H.I.V. It’s O.K. … It’s a shame that Donald used this platform with you, instead of using this platform to come out and apologize to the world, which would have been great.”
In attempting to AIDS-shame Johnson, Sterling further shamed himself — if that’s even possible — and proved supremely disrespectful of and destructive to people living with H.I.V. and those (like Johnson, who responded magnanimously) who are working to reach the affected and protect those at risk.
In this it is clear that Johnson is a far better example for our children than Sterling.