|Date:||May 30, 2022|
By: Stephen T. Watson & Charlie Specht | May 30, 2022
A racist came looking for Buffalo.
But Buffalo doesn't have to look far to find racism.
In the hours after this month's horrific mass shooting at a Jefferson Avenue supermarket, where 10 Black people were killed, some Buffalo leaders took pains to point out the suspected gunman came from hundreds of miles away to carry out the attack. He’s not from Buffalo, they said, and the racism that brought him here doesn’t represent this city.
But that overlooks decades of racist policies, incidents and sometimes outright violence that, according to some in the African American community, have marked life for some Blacks here.
“This whole city should be in mourning for what happened. And not just for what happened, but what has continuously happened in the history of this city. Racism is not new here,” Jillian Hanesworth, a community organizer and Buffalo’s poet laureate, said a few days after the attack.
It is daily affronts, such as driving past a Confederate flag waving on a tall flagpole in a suburb.
It is systemic racism, such as regulations embraced by government and financial institutions that years ago limited where Black people were allowed to live.
It is racist graffiti and social media posts – even those spread in the days immediately after the May 14 massacre.
And it is acts of murder, arson and other crimes that targeted African Americans over the past century
State and federal authorities say dozens of hate crimes have been reported in this area in recent years, though researchers caution that such incidents are widely underreported. The FBI, for one, found 176 hate crimes reported in Buffalo and Niagara Falls over the decade ending in 2019, according to statistics from the Anti-Defamation League that do not detail the incidents.
As Buffalo seeks to heal from this month's hate-fueled attack, advocates say, the city must reckon with its own legacy of racism.
“This is a systemic and generational problem that we have in Western New York,” said India Walton, the community activist and former Buffalo mayoral candidate.
Local organizations have over the years sought to tackle this problem. The Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable, for example, in 2016 issued a data-rich report illustrating how investments to address racial inequity in neighborhoods and schools would produce tangible benefits for the region.
“We need not only to call it out, but we need to budget it out,” said the Rev. Mark Blue, president of the Buffalo NAACP chapter. “We need money to deal with these racial biases that are in our community.”
Miles Gresham, a local attorney and policy fellow with the progressive Partnership for the Public Good, noted that while the area has a history of racist incidents, it also has a legacy of resisting racism.
He pointed to Buffalo's position as a key stop on the Underground Railroad, for example, and its role in the formation of the NAACP.
"People have always fought against it, and people will continue to fight against it and people are fighting against it now," Gresham said.
In every decade since World War II, when many Black people came to Buffalo from the South to escape the Jim Crow laws of that era and to seek work in the factories, people of color have at times been the subject of racial violence when they tried to move into previously all-white areas.
Few struck fear into the hearts of Black Buffalonians like Joseph G. Christopher, the white serial killer known as “the .22-Caliber Killer” who terrorized the city in 1980 until he was caught and convicted of three murders. Christopher claimed to have killed 13 Black men during rampages in New York City and Buffalo.
B. Franklin Bundy, a counselor for the State Division of Veterans’ Affairs, was the first Black person to move his family to the Town of Tonawanda in the 1950s. In August 1966, Bundy awoke to find a white man burning a cross against his state-issued vehicle.
The incident was not the last: Crosses were burned, homes set on fire and bricks were thrown through the windows of Black families in Lewiston in 1987, in South Buffalo in 2008, in Lovejoy in 2012 and in North Tonawanda in 2016.
“We have people – not just agitators who are coming in from outside Erie County, but people within Erie County, too, we have to be honest here – who are far too comfortable with doing heinous acts of terror based on racism and white supremacy, and we have to shift their comfort levels immediately,” County Legislature Chairwoman April N. M. Baskin said after the Tops supermarket attack.
But there are also more subtle types of racism embedded in institutions that have historically decided where Black people in Buffalo should live.
The shooter wrote online that he chose Buffalo as a target – and, specifically, the Tops on Jefferson Avenue – because of the high concentration of African Americans, who comprise 79% of that neighborhood, according to U.S. census data.
Maps drawn in the 1930s for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation – an agency of the federal government – were used by the mortgage industry for decades to deny mortgages in Black areas, a practice known as “redlining.”
As recently as eight years ago, state officials claimed banks in Buffalo discriminated against Black people. In 2014, the state attorney general sued Evans Bank for excluding Buffalo’s East Side from its loan service area. Bank officials denied racism was a factor but agreed to a settlement in 2015 that required them to spend $825,000 on minority homeownership and affordable housing initiatives.
When Black people had the means to move out of the East Side to the suburbs, there were other hidden obstacles like restrictions on home deeds in the early 20th century that prohibited the sale of homes to people of color.
“The property shall be occupied by the Caucasian race only,” read one property deed in Cheektowaga reviewed by The Buffalo News.
The “racial covenants” are no longer enforceable – the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1948 – but some say this systemic racism had the effect of concentrating Black people into an area of the city that became a target for the shooter.
Symbols of hate
Confederate flags are an occasional sight in the region even though Buffalo is hundreds of miles from the old South.
One such flag flew, underneath an American flag, from a towering flagpole on Parker Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda for years.
The homeowner defended the symbol, viewed by many as supportive of treason and segregationist policies, in a brief 2017 interview. "The flag itself is not racist,” he insisted.
It hasn’t been seen in many months.
Even in the wake of the Tops massacre, a homeowner on Indian Church Road in South Buffalo felt comfortable displaying a Confederate flag and a flag with an assault rifle and the words, “Come and Take It.”
Across the street from that home, whose owner did not respond to a message seeking comment, sits one of the only Black churches in largely white South Buffalo, Berea Church of God in Christ.
Neighbor Arthur Giacalone passes the home while walking in the Seneca Street neighborhood. Giacalone, an attorney, said he respects freedom of speech but is uncomfortable with symbols of hate and violence being displayed so prominently.
“I would love to think the vast majority of people don’t feel that way, but it hurts to see any manifestation of it,” Giacalone said.
The Rev. Nathaniel Lee Jr. is pastor of the Berea Church, which opened there a dozen years ago and, he said, has faced little outright opposition from the surrounding community.
"If anyone has disapproved of us being there, I will put it this way: They have not openly expressed it,” Lee said, noting the homeowner in question once returned an iPhone his wife had dropped near his home.
Public recruiting and rallies
Western New York in recent years also has seen white supremacists leaflet communities with racist flyers.
Some residents and officials have responded with outrage to the recruiting efforts, which have happened in Lewiston, the Tonawandas and Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood, among other areas.
Self-proclaimed white supremacist Karl Hand of Lockport was ticketed by Cheektowaga police for littering after he was caught dumping Racial Nationalist Party of America materials throughout that town.
There are some groups that have tried to hold public rallies, with mixed success.
One such neo-Nazi event, a “White Lives Matter” rally in 2016 in Cazenovia Park, drew just Hand, who was outnumbered by an anti-racism counterdemonstration that drew 350 people.
A political event held in April 2017 in Niagara Square to support then-President Donald Trump drew a couple of hundred people and sparked criticism for the presence of Confederate flags and the attendance of white supremacists, including one who handed out literature.
Then-Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard defended his decision to speak in full uniform at the rally.
“We had our former sheriff attend a rally with a Confederate flag flying behind him,” Walton said. “We want to pretend this is something that’s new – it’s not. This is something that’s been going on for my entire lifetime.”
Another main organizer of the Niagara Square event, dubbed the "Spirit of America" rally, was Carl Paladino, the developer and former
Republican candidate for governor. Paladino has come under fire over the past decade for forwarding racist and sexist emails to friends and acquaintances and, in a 2016 interview with Artvoice, making comments about then-President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, that prompted calls for his removal from the Buffalo School Board.
Paladino insisted in a brief interview this month that the comments and emails were meant to be humorous and were taken out of context.
"Everybody that knows me knows I'm not a racist," he said.
Paladino remains a well-connected member of the local establishment. The Erie County Republican Committee, for example, last fall honored him with its “Jack Kemp Leadership Award.”
Heidi I. Jones, an attorney, activist and social-justice researcher in Buffalo, noted Paladino's continuing influence and the political success of others who share his views.
“Those are examples of how racism is baked into our local culture,” she said.
Jones and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, pointed to studies showing Erie County had a disproportionate number of residents arrested for taking part in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol – such as research by George Washington University showing Erie ranked 15th among 3,000 counties – as a sign of how white supremacism remains here even if the face of these views has changed.
"You don't know who they are anymore," Peoples-Stokes said, "because they don't wear hoods anymore."
Continued after shooting
The May 14 massacre at Tops did not stop racist incidents. Two such events drew considerable publicity in the days after the attack.
In one, an Attica Correctional Facility guard earned notoriety when he shared a social media meme crudely mocking the 10 victims. He punctuated the meme with the comment, "Too soon? This should weed out some FB friends," followed by a laughing emoji.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said it suspended without pay and intended to fire the guard. The department also said it would seek to discipline other employees who appeared to engage with the “despicable” post.
In another incident, a Town of Niagara homeowner, who is Black, awoke one morning this month to find someone had spray-painted a threat to “kill all” Blacks across a white vinyl fence along his property. The threat used a racial slur to refer to African Americans.
But others stepped up to help the homeowner. Neighbors showed up to paint over the graffiti, Home Depot employees repaired the damaged fence and authorities announced an arrest in the case.
"It's a sad day in our community for someone to do this,” the homeowner, Johnny Parks told The News previously, “but they're not pushing us away.
"I'm still staying active in our community, doing whatever it takes to make our community better."
To read the full article on The Buffalo News' website, click here.