The Black American AIDS Crisis and the Amber Cloud

by Derrick Bell
Professor, New York University School of Law

If African Americans constituted their own country, the prevalence of HIV would qualify the country to receive billions from the United States to fight AIDS. However, because they live in the United States, their health care is massively ignored and, as a result, African Americans are disproportionately bearing the brunt of HIV in this country.

by Derrick Bell

According to a study reported in the July 30, 2008, edition of the New York Times: “Nearly 600,000 African-Americans are living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and up to 30,000 are becoming infected each year. When adjusted for age, their death rate is two and a half times that of infected whites.” If African Americans constituted their own country, the prevalence of HIV would qualify the country to receive billions from the United States to fight AIDS. However, because they live in the United States, their health care is massively ignored and, as a result, African Americans are disproportionately bearing the brunt of HIV in this country. The report suggests that partly as a result of these figures, a hypothetical nation of black America would rank below 104 other countries in life expectancy.

The story quotes health officials who view the disparities as “staggering” particularly in that the United States is spending more to fight the disease in foreign countries than in black communities at home. Reading it, I remembered a story I wrote more than two decades ago. It illustrates that facts can be more chilling than fiction. And it suggests the difficult challenge facing those health workers seeking to provide black, Latino, and Indian Americans in this country with the AIDS fighting drugs and resources that the country is offering to other sufferers around the world. The story begins:
The Amber Cloud descended upon the land without warning. Its heavy, chilling mist was clearly visible throughout the long night in which it rolled across the nation. By morning, it was gone, but in its wake it left a social transformation. The most fortunate young people in the land—white adolescents with wealthy parents—were stricken with a debilitating affliction, unknown to medical science, but whose symptoms were all too familiar to parents whose children are both poor and black.
The media called it “Ghetto Disease,” a term that made up in accuracy what it lacked in elegance. Within days, the teenaged offspring of the nation’s most prosperous families changed drastically in both appearance and behavior. Their skins turned a dull amber color. Those afflicted by the disease could not hide it. Because its cause and contagious potential were unknown, its victims, after an initial wave of sympathy, were shunned by everyone not afflicted.
Perhaps the victims’ bizarre personality changes were a direct result of the Amber Cloud itself; perhaps they simply reflected the youths’ reaction to being treated as lepers, both in public and in all but the most loving of homes. Whatever the cause, the personality changes were obvious and profound. Youngsters who had been alert, personable, and confident became lethargic, uninterested, suspicious, withdrawn, and hopelessly insecure. Their behavior resembled that of many children in the most disadvantaged and poverty-ridden ghettoes, barrios, and reservations.
Apathy was the principal symptom of the afflicted, but in many cases undisciplined behavior in the home escalated to gang warfare in suburban streets. Police had difficulty coping with serious crimes committed by those who earlier had committed only minor misdemeanors. Upper-income enclaves, which had long excluded blacks and the poor, now were devastated from within.
The story proceeds to describe how anguish across the country motivated a determination to cure Ghetto Disease, deemed a crisis more dangerous than war. And, as in war, tremendous sums were expended both by government and private agencies in research and testing. Black and Latino children were not afflicted by the disease, an exemption that fed rumors that civil rights leaders were responsible for the ailment so afflicting upper middle-class white youth. Racial hostility, always lurking just below the surface, manifested itself in violent street altercations and the public arrests of black and Latino civil rights leaders. The story continues:
Racial hostility did not extend to a group of black social scientists, all experts on the destructive behavior of black ghetto life, who worked with government experts to develop an effective treatment plan. During the search for a cure, hundreds of blacks volunteered for extensive psychiatric testing designed to determine the precise nature of Ghetto Disease.
After a year of strenuous effort, the President announced the development of a psychological conditioning process and a special synthesis of mind-altering chemicals that appeared capable of curing Amber Cloud victims. Both the treatment and the new medicine were very expensive; together they would cost up to one hundred thousand dollars per person. But a nation that had prayed for a “cure at any cost” proved willing to assume the burden.
Leaders in minorities communities hailed the discovery and urged the treatment be made available to their youth who exhibited identical behavioral symptoms not caused by an amber cloud, but by poverty, disadvantage, and racial prejudice. The public response was quite negative. Why should the country permit “piggybacking” of the long-standing problems of minority youth onto the Amber Cloud disease when, as some critics claimed, the problem with ghetto youths was not disease but inherent sloth, inferior I.Q., and a life-long commitment to the “black lifestyle”? The story concludes:
A presidential task force recommended legislative action authorizing the billions needed to effectuate the cure. Congress budgeted the costs largely by cutting appropriations for defense systems. “Defense,” it was argued, “must begin at home.” The Amber Cloud Cure bill included a “targeting” provision that specifically limited access to the treatment to victims of the Amber Cloud. Over the furious objections of minority group legislators, the Amber Cloud Cure bill quickly became law.
 The treatment program was marked by a high level of efficiency and patriotic pride. The nation had faced and overcome the strange, still-unexplained phenomenon. Following the cure of the last Amber Cloud victim, the nation observed a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. The treatment supply was exhausted; the nation and its most privileged youth returned to normalcy.
To read the full report, “Left Behind: Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic” published by the Black AIDS Institute, click here.

The author is a Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law, as well as an author of numerous treatises on race and the law, including: Race, Racism, and American Law (6th ed. 2008); And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1992); and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992).