May 17, 2022
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.
This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.