What happened at Tops Friendly Market on Buffalo's east side has been variously framed as racism and hate wrapped in White Supremacy, and the ease with which everyday Americans can secure assault-style weapons. There is another storyline worth exploring: it is about people living segregated lives. Plainly in sight but generally out of mind among mainstream Americans, segregation is an indelible feature of the U.S. urban landscape. Desensitized to its existence, it is accepted all too often as the way things are.
But the murderer was not oblivious to Buffalo's east side. He was drawn to it; it was exactly where he wanted to go. That is where his targets live.
Eighty-five percent of "Black Buffalo" lives on the city's east side, and African Americans make up only 6% of the rest of the metropolitan area. That concentration makes Buffalo one of America's most segregated cities. And that concentration is a big reason why Tops opened to fanfare over two decades ago—the first full-service food market in the area since the 1960s. Why the enthusiasm? Minority neighborhoods are often situated in "food deserts" where there are either no or limited options to secure fresh food, including fruits/vegetables and protein—healthier foods—beyond convenience store options heavy in sugar, fat, carbs, and calories.
The socio-economic circumstances in Buffalo and many other cities across the country are an historical phenomenon. The population of people of color and minority groups grew over time, white people/families relocated to other parts of the city or moved to the suburbs, and Black and other minorities were left behind to live in a confined space—apart from and not a part of.
Politicians talk about changing things, but lethargy tends to win out—year after year, decade after decade. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that is what happened in Buffalo.
In 2006 when Byron Brown was elected mayor, Mark Sheer writes, "Buffalo ranked as the nation's second poorest city, and Buffalo's overall poverty rate was 29.9 percent." Brown declared that he would "bring people into the mainstream of Buffalo's economy." Today, Brown is still in office, and Buffalo's overall poverty rate is about the same as in 2006, while nearly 40% of the city's African Americans live at or below the poverty line.
Those numbers are especially distressing because the picture did not change after the state and private sector poured hundreds of millions of investment dollars into Buffalo in a program aptly named the "Buffalo Billion." Yet, "Buffalo remains an impoverished city," Sheer concludes, "and there are few signs of progress."
Ellen Ockerman pursues that storyline. "Racist policies, fueled by lending practices, marginalized the city's (Buffalo's) Black community," she wrote just a few days ago. "A 1990 study on the state of Black Buffalo unearthed high unemployment, high poverty rates, and segregation on the city's East Side. A 2021 study then examined three decades since and found more of the same. 'Changes in their lives over the past 31 years have been modest,' the study authors concluded. 'During that period, an entire generation saw little if any improvements in their lives.'"
Leslie Mac puts the circumstance in stark, personal terms: "The life expectancy of white people on the west side of Main Street in Buffalo is five years higher than their Black neighbors on the east side. So again, let that sink in. Moving just a few miles in Buffalo changes your life expectancy. This is the very definition of structural, deliberate racism."
For sure, blessed are the nonprofits and other charities in Buffalo and elsewhere that address human, household, and family needs. But third sector support, meant to supplement public investment and not be a driving force, is sorely insufficient. And public underinvestment is clearly shown when the U.S. is evaluated against the rest of the world with respect to meeting the social needs of citizens. America ranks #24 internationally in the 2021 Social Progress Index. The U.S. fared well in some categories (#1 in both mobile phone subscriptions and access to electricity) but not in other areas, including ranking #35 globally in premature deaths from non-communicable diseases and #97 worldwide in equal access to quality health care.
So, to no surprise, what we see in Buffalo is a national circumstance repeated – the people who can least afford to get hurt, get hurt, again and again. And while it is easy to locate "the cause" in immediate and direct terms (in this case, a racist and troubled person with a gun), there is much more to the story. It is also sociocultural, with indifference as a prime component. It is about not caring enough to do what needs to be done or not sticking with it until it gets done. Without collective commitment to change and dogged persistence in that effort, trouble looms—just as it has and still does.
That is what India Walton, a Buffalo-area activist, sees. The Buffalo massacre is "a moment of moral reckoning," she asserts. "Racism is baked into our political and economic systems, and it's why cities like Buffalo remain deeply segregated," Walton told members of The Working Families Party.
Walton is an important figure in the Buffalo story. She sought to displace Brown by contesting him in the Democratic mayoral primary, and then winning by a 4.5% margin. But opponents talked Brown into running as a write-in candidate and, as Branko Mercetic observed, they "pulled out all the stops" to defeat her. And they did. In November, Brown's name was written in by an astounding 60% of Buffalo's 64,000+ voters. His "improbable comeback was helped," Mercetic writes, "by a business sector terrified that…the gravy train was about to end." Donors poured nearly a million dollars into Brown's write-in campaign between the end of the June primary and the November election.
That outcome shows how difficult it is to "dislodge and replace," even when the political tea leaves seem to be in your favor. Walton won the Democratic primary in a city where all the members of Buffalo's Common Council are Democrats, and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D) and the county's Democratic Party endorsed her. Brown's counter was that Walton is "an unqualified, inexperienced, radical socialist." And the label stuck.
The irony is that radical is needed in Buffalo because the political establishment has not made the issues, concerns, and needs of "Black Buffalo" a priority. But does that matter to the electorate? Apparently not. Six of ten Buffalonians who cast ballots last November stuck with Brown.
So, is there hope? There is no shortage of solid ideas, informed by research, and broadly vetted and discussed. An excellent analysis with recommendations can be found in the 2021 study, referenced earlier, which was conducted by faculty, staff, and students at the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and the U.B. Community Health Equity Institute. It is a hard-hitting presentation that befits its title, The Harder We Run (the farther we fall behind). The research team led by Professor Henry-Louis Taylor chides local leaders for failing to address "Black Buffalo's” core problems." The list is long, and it is not exclusive to Buffalo—housing quality and affordability, health status and access to care, educational opportunities and attainment (core and job training), employment opportunities and wages, and the impact of gentrification—page after page with analysis and recommendations for action.
But nothing of consequence will happen in Buffalo without political will—not just with a capital "P' (in the elective sense), but with a lower "p," too, because everything is political. It is about the public, corporate, nonprofit sectors, and the grassroots—supplemented by expertise from universities and other experts--making east side community development a priority. Then, they need to work as one to establish goals, gather and apply resources, monitor results, adjust course when needed, and achieve success. And the public needs to get behind the effort, supporting and applauding it, convinced that improving the lives of "Black Buffalo" is good for Buffalo.
Nothing short of that will make the needed difference—in Buffalo or anywhere else. Wise historical thinking tells us why.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries—long before there was a Buffalo, New York—George Herbert, a Welsh poet and theologian, wrote extensively about life, religion, and society. He developed a keen interest in pithy sayings that were richer in meaning than their brevity would suggest. Proverbs they were called, expressions such as "All is not gold that glitters" ("All the glitters is not gold" in modern parlance) and "Help thyself, and God will help thee" ("God helps those who help themselves").
A collection of nearly 1200 of Herbert's favorite sayings was published a few years after his death. The year was 1640, and one of the proverbs included in that collection applies well to the issues described in this essay: "To him that will, ways are not wanting." The contemporary version of that saying is, "Where there is a will, there is a way."
There is another way of expressing that thought: "No will, no way." But, unfortunately, that version—the second version—is what we have in America today when it comes to so many social and public matters, including those facing Buffalo, New York.
The way forward follows the will to do so. Progress has always been, and will always be, a matter of will.