Sex, Lies, Death

The irresistible pull of the down-low myth—uh, story—hooks reporters and their readers

If only to verify our existence, every so often media announce that the sky has fallen on black America. The latest cause célèbre for acolytes of Chicken Little is a reported rise in the "down low" lifestyle. Media outlets as diverse as The Advocate, USA Today, and The Oprah Winfrey Show have gathered their crack reporters to bring you the latest on this grave and gathering threat.

Outlet be damned, the blueprint of the down-low story is always the same: Black women are alleged to account for 72 percent of all reported cases of HIV between 1999 and 2002. The cause? The hordes of barebacking bisexual black men, driven underground by the black community's entrenched homophobia. For sure, HIV is a huge, disproportionate problem in the black community. But direct evidence exposing the down-low as the major causal factor is lacking.

Last month, Essence finished a two-part report with an article that carried this hand-wringing headline: "Do Black Men Still Want Us?" Answer—based on your covers, we crave Jill Scott like grits and gravy, but Mo'Nique will send us to rice cakes.

The down-low has all the makings of a sensation: Here is a tale of sex, lies, and death. Better still, here is a tale as old as America—the threat of Black Dick. In the olden days, the warlocks of lede, hed, and deck mostly saw the black phallus as a menace to white daisies. But in the era of equal opportunity, Black Dick has turned on its own.

The Washington Post headlined its down-low entry, last August, as "HIV Positive, Without a Clue," with the subhead of "Black Men's Hidden Sex Lives Imperiling Female Partners."

Turns out the logic behind the down-low is as creaky as the headlines are dramatic. "The down-low is being wildly reported, but it's a story without facts," says Phill Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute. "It doesn't help us with AIDS prevention to vilify black men or to disempower black women."

What drives activists like Wilson crazy is that despite the ink the down-low has generated, hard data is lacking. Researchers have no national count on how many men are living down-low, much less what down-low is. "If you answer research questions at a gay club, or if you're being interviewed in Essence by E. Lynn Harris, you ain't down-low anymore," says Dr. David Malebranche, an assistant professor at Emory University's Division of Medicine. "Everybody has different definitions and different perspectives on what this means."

The Times cited a study saying that one-third of all bisexual black men have HIV and another noting that in the Centers for Disease Control survey of a majority of the states, black women accounted for 72 percent of new HIV cases among women. "If you look at the numbers among black women and you look at how black women contract HIV, it's at least valid to talk about this as an issue," says Linda Villarosa, editor at large at Essence. Villarosa has had a few shots at the sordid tale—she authored a front-page Timesarticle on the subject, and had a hand in the Essence version.

But the numbers are ambiguous. The oft-quoted figure about a third of all bisexual black men having HIV, according to Dr. Malebranche, was the result of research done in nightclubs in six major cities. "All you can say about those statistics," says Malebranche, "is that one out of three black men in those particular cities, who frequent those particular clubs, have HIV."

More questionable is the assertion about black women and new cases of HIV. The Times gets credit—unlike, say, Essence—for at least noting that its story is based on an amalgam of statistics from 29 out of50 states, as compiled by the CDC. Only half of the20 most populous states bothered to report. Large ones like California, New York, Illinois, and Texas—with almost a third of the country's population—aren't included.

The story's linchpin has been the accepted truth that the black community is acutely more homophobic than the rest of America. The down-low is stirring up emotions in "the often-homophobic black community," reported The Advocate. "Black men aren't allowed to have even the slightest feminine characteristics of the average metrosexual." Andre 3000, Prince, and Fonzworth Bentley apparently missed that memo. As did most of black America, whose rampant homophobia nonetheless puts it behind such bastions of tolerance as Bensonhurst, Hasidic Williamsburg, and the whole of Mississippi.

A study published last year in Public Opinion Quarterly concluded that "evidence that blacks are more homophobic than whites is quite limited." While blacks were significantly more likely to object to homosexuality, it found, they also were significantly more likely than whites to support laws against anti-gay discrimination.

What the down-low mythology demonstrates, more than anything, is an an adherence to the cult of black pathology. Black people are more homophobic, more misogynist, more anti-Semitic, more anti-intellectual, more violent, and generally a problem. The viewpoint persists despite facts on the ground.

Barack Obama rails against the stigma that brands a black kid with a book white—and yet on 125th Street seemingly a third of the vendors are selling books. Bill Cosby attacks black girls for popping out babies and being bad parents—even as the pregnancy rate among black girls falls precipitously. Ditto for the down-low. Corner pundits aren't particularly known for nuance. But when reporters start drinking the Kool-Aid, we've got trouble.


Pardon the lack of enthusiasm

Watching ESPN these days immediately sends me into spasms of geezerdom: "Bring back Irv Cross! Dick Schaap, why did you leave us?" The best I can say about Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser's Pardon the Interruption is that they make me forget what channel I'm watching.

With great horror last week I tuned into PTI and found Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith subbing. As any sports nut knows, Wilbon and Kornheiser's shtick was honed over two decades—not with prodding from producers, but in the newsroom of The Washington Post. Smith and Bayless are also print journalists (The Philadelphia Inquirer and The San Jose Mercury News, respectively), but the two have about as much chemistry as a tombstone. Jokes fall dead on arrival, debates are transparently staged as the duo tries to patent the art of scowling. The only thing worse than the festival of argument that's starting to define ESPN and cable news is a fake festival of arguments. Wilbon. Kornheiser. Hurry home. Can't hold on . . . much longer . . .


Black on white on black

Favorite attempts by white people to convince themselves Barack Obama isn't black:

Christopher Buckley in The New York Times calling Obama "the new Tiger Woods of American politics"—ditto for NYT columnist David Brooks on PBS. Who was the old Tiger Woods?

William Saletan—whose stuff I love—noting in Slate, "Obama isn't exactly black. His mother is white and came from Kansas. His father came from Kenya." Now they tell us. That sort of thinking would have done more for the race than the Emancipation Proclamation. "Wait, he's not really black. His mother's from the Gold Coast and his father is the lecherous overseer. Release those chains!"

Scott L. Malcomson, also in the NYT: Obama "is not the direct product of generations of black life in America: he is not black in the usual way." True. But try that one on Abner Louima, or better yet, Amadou Diallo.
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