Friday, November 16, 2007


We talk a lot about it and maybe now that the election is over, we will think through it as a community and decide what we will do about it. Some may remember back in February I was quoted in the Chapel Hill News for a comment I made at the Community Leadership Collaboration meeting about panhandling. I thought then and still believe now that too many people want to call everybody who is seen as "being different" is a panhandler.

What is the "look" of being different? There’s our problem because panhandlers and lots of other folks are different from others but we want to conveniently call all of them a panhandler. All who are homeless are not panhandlers. Not all panhandlers are homeless. Homelessness and public begging are not synonymous issues. That’s a proven fact! We have criminals prowling our downtown streets and we also have those with disabilities, the working poor, the homeless veterans and those who panhandle. Just "being different" drives perceptions way too much in my opinion.

Just a few weeks ago, a piece in the Daily Tar Heel by a courageous student confirmed my theory. Here in part is what he wrote (go here for the entire piece)::

Why I'm a racist and you might be one too
By: James Edward Dillard

There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make.

I'm a racist.

Until a couple of nights ago, such a thought had never entered my mind. My white pillowcase doesn't have any eyeholes; I've never burnt a cross or tied a noose.

More than that, I like black people. Not just the ones I know, either. I was excited when my hometown Steelers hired Mike Tomlin as its first black head coach because it meant a step toward equality in Pittsburgh.

And I considered myself enlightened. I'd seen "Crash." I knew about white privilege. I was smart enough to know racists still exist, but surely I wasn't one of them.

So imagine my surprise when I found out I was wrong.

Allow me to explain. On Sunday night, after having dinner at Franklin Street Pizza and Pasta, my buddy Duncan and I were walking back to campus when a black man approached us.

He was bald and wearing a coat. In his left hand was a Styrofoam cup. As he walked passed us, he extended his arm and said, "Wassup man?"

Immediately, without thinking, I stuck my hands into my pockets and shrugged my shoulders. "Sorry sir, I don't have any change," I said.

Problem is he wasn't panhandling. When he made this clear, I begged forgiveness. Fortunately for me, he was kind and accepted my apology. I couldn't have blamed him had he punched me in the face. But that's not the point.

The point is that in my mind "black guy" plus "cup in hand" plus "Franklin Street" equaled "panhandler."

Does this make me a racist? I think it does. At the very least, I'm guilty of racial stereotyping. Such stereotyping seems innocent at first - after all, most panhandlers downtown are black men - but this "harmless" stereotyping can be particularly corrosive.

The only way we will have a chance of solving our panhandling problem on Franklin St., — and yes it’s OUR problem, — is to have an open and honest dialogue about it. As the comments to Mr. Dillard’s piece reveals, just like our community in general, some of our students get it but others don’t. Sure, there are people who are fearful when they are on Franklin St. and we must change that.

I am hopeful that we will soon get it and get on it as well. The “Spare Change for Real Change” program is a great start, but there’s more to do. We have to resolve the shelter location question, as it is a symbol to many of the problem. We as a community have the ability to deal with this problem; let’s get the will.

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