Decades of racial inequity left Buffalo vulnerable. Restoring the community after the shooting demands more than thoughts and prayers

It was just a day in the life, afternoon food shopping for Saturday night dinner, maybe a barbecue. What do you have a taste for? Need anything?

Andre was picking up a surprise birthday cake for his three-year-old son. Ruth was there to pick up a few items after her daily visit with her husband in his nursing care facility. Celestine, a grandmother of six and a breast cancer survivor, was shopping with her sister. Talley, one of nine siblings, sent her fiancée to shop down a different aisle to complete their list. That saved him. Londin, eight, was on the hunt for strawberry cake mix when she heard the gunshots, and hid in the milk coolers until someone came to get her. Aaron was a retired police lieutenant, who worked as a security guard at the store. Aunties and elders, church deacons, community activists and retired teachers were all there—everybody’s got to eat.

Last Saturday afternoon, a heavily armed man opened fire in and around Tops Friendly Markets, which served a predominantly Black community in Buffalo, N.Y. for nearly 20 years. It was a meticulously planned, racially motivated attack. Thirteen people, ages 20 to 86, were shot. Eleven were Black. Ten are dead.

The shooter was taken into custody without incident. The residents are devastated.

This is the nature of racial terror: the insidious, constant baseline fear that you are at risk of being targeted because of who you are and what you represent to the dominant culture. Sometimes, federal data suggests increasingly, that risk takes the form of a calculated, deadly attack.

And sometimes that risk takes the form of legally sanctioned barriers to health, safety, dignity, and opportunity.

For the residents of east Buffalo, it was all of the above.

“It was everything to us. It was the heart of Jefferson [Avenue, east Buffalo],” Jeanette Simmons, a former Tops cashier, told the Guardian. She describes the store as a community hub and oasis in a food desert, whose presence had attracted other local businesses. “They paved the way for us to have things on Jefferson. I loved everything about Tops. Some people can’t afford to go way out to get food.”

It’s now a crime scene, a memorial, and a new node in the timeline of racial terror incidents.

A 2019 New York State economic development report identified Jefferson Avenue as one of four “corridors” ripe for investment. They need it: The median household income in the community that shops at Tops is less than $25,000. Most Tops customers don’t drive, so local matters a lot.

But a supermarket could only go so far to solve the problems of a deeply divided Buffalo.

While west Buffalo is primarily white, the city’s East Side is home to some 85% of Black Buffalo residents. That divide was cemented by the Kensington Expressway, a modern thoroughfare that razed public land and cut off a once-thriving Black middle-class community in the 1960s. In addition to the economic isolation, it left behind a legacy of air pollution and health problems.  

Black residents are now living profoundly different lives from their white counterparts, according to A City Divided, A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo published by Partnership for the Public Good in 2018.

“While racial segregation has declined slightly in recent years, economic segregation has increased, resulting in neighborhood conditions growing worse–not better–for most people of color in the region,” researchers found. “Segregation imposes a wide range of costs on people of color, impairing their health, education, job access, and wealth. Individuals living in segregated neighborhoods tend to have less access to services that allow adequate standards of living, and their economic mobility is severely impaired.”

From that point of view, Tops was an answer to a crime that has been perpetuated for years.

There’s plenty to unpack about the shooting, the shooter, and what happens next, and I take that on in the links below. I will end with this: We are long past the time when leaders need to be coached and reminded to check in with their employees or other stakeholders who may be traumatized by events like these. Silence speaks volumes, and your absence will be noted. Make every syllable count.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On point: The shooter

What we know about the shooter  Payton S. Gendron, 18, drove 200 miles from his home in Conklin, New York, and selected the largest grocery store in the largest predominantly Black community in his part of the state. Last spring, he was briefly taken into custody under state mental health laws after he told others his post-high school plans were to commit murder-suicide. He had scoped out his target earlier in the year, with detailed physical reconnaissance of the store. He bought a gun, no problem. He published a 180-page document explaining the racist conspiracy theory known as The Great Replacement, that spurred him to murder. (I don’t call it a manifesto, and you shouldn’t either.) He expressed admiration for Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist gunman who live-streamed his attack during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand three years ago. “Brenton’s live-stream started everything you see here,” Gendron wrote. Gendron similarly live-streamed the attack live on the Amazon-owned gaming site Twitch, which remained live for about two minutes. This has happened before.

On Point: The Great Replacement Theory

About replacement theory  You likely are reading a lot about replacement theory, “the fringe” notion that white Americans are being replaced by Black and immigrant voters to wrest political power via changing demographics. It was the evil, animating justification behind the Gendron’s attack—and others—and it has taken over mainstream Republican political discourse largely thanks to Fox’s Tucker Carlsonthe most popular cable news host in America. Carlson’s notion that elites are orchestrating the replacement of white voters—and their hold on values, power, and cultural superiority—with “obedient” immigrants and others, was heard on more than 400 episodes of his show, according to the New York Times. It’s good business. “Mr. Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news—and also, by some measures, the most successful,” reports Nicholas Confessore.

But this rhetoric, which is designed to stoke white fear and entitlement, has never really been fringe and has always found an eager audience. It’s deeply baked into the history of a country that is now engaged in a heated debate over whether that history should be taught. Here’s one proof point: W.E.B. Du Bois once bested a determined pro-Nazi, white supremacist replacer named Lothrop Stoddard in a public debate entitled “Has the Negro the Same Intellectual Possibilities As Other Races?” Du Bois handily won the battle, but the now-forgotten Stoddard seems to have won the war.

On Point: Guns

About the gun, and about guns Gendron legally purchased a Bushmaster XM-15, the same type of semi-automatic weapon that was used to kill 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Gendron modified his weapon by taping together two magazines for faster re-loading, a hack used by the Sandy Hook shooter, too. “That’s right, I used the dread military-grade assault rifle as my main firearm for this attack,” Gendron wrote in his document, accompanying a photo of the weapon.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, and reported by NPR, the U.S. has lived through 198 mass shootings so far this year, about 10 a week. (The Buffalo crime comes on the heels of three separate shootings at Asian-run businesses in Dallas, and another shooting—which appears to be politically motivated—at a Taiwanese church in Los Angeles.) None are spontaneous events. "This is planned violence. There is, in every one of these cases, always a trail of ... behavioral warning signs," says Mark Follman, an author, and gun violence researcher. Assessment and interventions can work, he says.

In the absence of meaningful government solutions, addressing gun violence is slowly becoming an issue for corporate action. I recently caught up with former Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, who leads the anti-gun violence advocacy, and Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh to learn more about their efforts to end gun violence in the U.S. Look for that story next week.

Parting Words

“Civilization is going to pieces,” Tom broke out violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires' by this man Goddard?”

“Why no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” says Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”

“Well these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

— from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925.

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