African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account for half of new HIV infections each year. What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, the rate of HIV among black women is 20 times higher than that of white women; among youth aged 13 to 24, black Americans make up 61 percent of HIV diagnoses.

Across the United States, health organizations, activists and community leaders agree that the black AIDS epidemic needs to be addressed—and quickly. But tackling AIDS in the black community means tackling many complex cultural, societal and socioeconomic issues. That’s why in 2001, the CDC, along with several nonprofit organizations across the United States, organized the first National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD). Its aim:  inspire action to stop the spread of HIV among black Americans. This Thursday, February 7, marks the 8th annual NBHAAD, and organizations large and small from every corner of the country are sponsoring awareness fairs, parades, films, art exhibitions and HIV testing events to draw attention to the epidemic.

At 8 p.m. ET/PT this evening, February 7, BET Networks is airing a half-hour special, Stigma: The Silent Killer, which examines the roles that stigma and discrimination have played in the spread of HIV/AIDS among black Americans and people in the Caribbean.  “We’ve made steps in terms of the awareness of the issue, and people are talking about it a little more openly and getting tested,” says Sonya Lockett, BET’s vice president of public affairs. “But you still have [people] that think, ‘It doesn’t really apply to me’ so it’s important to continue doing this kind of programming and messaging.”

In the program, influential black community members sound off, including Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC, and Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute. The show confronts homophobia in Caribbean communities and the role of the black church in stopping the spread of the virus. “There are far too many pastors today that have still not gotten involved with the HIV/AIDS movement,” says Pernessa Seele, founder and CEO of the Balm in Gilead, a nongovernmental organization that works with faith communities to address health issues in the black community, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Still, Lockett says that the black church “has become a lot more open and focused on HIV,” in recent years, and that it was important for the special to highlight this progress as many black church leaders have stepped up to address AIDS in their communities.

The show also takes a critical look at a community very intertwined with BET—the hip-hop community. Cultural critic Dr. Marc Lamont Hill says that many hip-hop messages are about sexualizing young people and that conversations about “responsibility and protection” are often left out of the picture.

“If you talk about how you sleep with a different woman every night, then you should also talk about wearing a condom because most of these rappers are wearing condoms… but that doesn’t become part of the song,” he says.

Stigma: The Silent Killer airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on BET (The show will re-air Sunday, February 10; check for more info). To learn more about National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and to find events and testing locations in your area, visit