Monday, March 12, 2018

Homelessness in Dallas is Wakanda

I know what you are saying to yourself: Great, another hot take on Black Panther, the zillionth one so far. Hear me out, though.
I am not really into comic books. I can think of only one comic book series, recently, which I have watched in full, Jessica Jones. That should tell you something. I have gone to comic book movies, because my children have dragged me to them, but these experiences have only reinforced my understanding that I am not the audience for these flicks. So, I really didn’t know what to expect when my 17-year-old wanted me to go to Black Panther with him, but go I did.

Wow. Like many people, I was blown away, and you can read critics’ reviews, to find out why. You don’t need me for that. I did want to address the message, which I found uplifting, even if my kid is right that the way it was presented was a little too ham-fisted. I really could not stop thinking about the film and its message, and I wondered why. Then I got it. I could not stop thinking about it, because it is so close to the work we do here every day.

Earlier this week on this blog, and last week on social media and via email, we shared the news of the Center for Social Innovation’s first public report on incredible work they have engaged in with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA), and five other cities, towards establishing racial equity in homeless services, through SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities), a new research and action program.
One of the ideas that we, at MDHA, have brought to the forefront of Dallas consciousness these last 16 months, is that homelessness in Dallas is largely about race. When around 60-70% of those experiencing homelessness are African-American, the question Larry James, CEO of CitySquare was asked in public in mid-2016, “Why do you have to make this about race,” is self-evident in its willful blindness.
Once you remove the scales from your eyes, be it regarding homelessness in Dallas, be it regarding the history of colonialism, you have two options that can explain the challenges Africans and African-Americans face. Option 1, and this is the option our region of the country held on to firmly into the mid-sixties: There is something wrong with Africans and African-Americans. Hopefully, that sentence just made you flinch, but don’t think that approach does not still exist in our world. The “great” thing about this approach is that it demands no action on our part, as a local or global society.

Option 2, and, spoiler alert, this option is the one backed up by a pesky thing called data or facts: What we see today is the result of how colonial powers treated Africa, and our society in Dallas treated and often still treats African Americans.

Black Panther allows us to imagine what would have happened had colonial powers not plundered Africa of its natural and human resources. Beyond that, it imagines an Africa with superior natural resources, that breeds technology beyond our wildest dreams. Though my 17-year-old might think this is a little too inelegant a presentation, I find the simplicity of it refreshing. The message of the Afro-Futuristic past and present of Wakanda is: The only difference between the condition of real world Africa and its diaspora and Wakanda is that the former lacks the resources of the latter, and that the latter suffered the trauma that did not befall the former. To bring it back to homelessness in Dallas: The difference between the white person who is housed and the black person experiencing homelessness, is that the black person comes from a traumatized community, robbed of its resources, and the white person does not.

Ok, so practically speaking, what now? The movie explores three paths. Path 1 is the status quo, the path of Wakanda up until that point, which was, essentially, to do nothing. Both Killmonger and the Black Panther realize that that path is no longer tenable. Path 2 is the path of Killmonger, the villain, who is uncharacteristically for comic books, rather nuanced. He favors the Wakandans treating the world like the world treated Africa. Path 3 is the path that the Black Panther chooses, that Wakanda begin to share its resources with the African Diasporas, in order to create racial equity.  

We, as Americans, confronting a crisis of homelessness, that has lasted for forty years have to decide what to do in our real world. The SPARC report is unflinching in its assessment:
The homelessness field stands at a crossroads: continue to use color-blind strategies to solve an entrenched social problem that disproportionately impacts people of color, or embrace a racial equity approach to addressing homelessness… Commitment to racial equity must permeate all other tactics and strategies that cities, counties, states, and the nation use to prevent and end homelessness… Unless we as a field address structural racism within housing, homelessness response, criminal justice, child welfare, employment, education, and health care, we will continue to witness high rates of homelessness for people of color. Our responses must be ambitious and focused on dismantling racist structures, systems, and programs.
We, in Dallas, stand at a crossroads too. There is no escaping that. Will we have the courage to rise to the challenge? Will we have the courage to marshal our abundant resources to end homelessness and create racial equity in this and all other areas? Only time will tell.

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