Hide Buffalo’s history of racism behind a cloak of unity

Tension choked the air as a three-meter-tall cross, wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, burned wildly, as if to set the night on fire. The cross burned in the fall of 1980, on Jefferson Avenue, which runs through several black neighborhoods that make up the East Side of Buffalo, New York, and it punctuated a wave of terror in and around the city. A month earlier, on September 22, a fourteen-year-old black boy had been shot three times in the head. Over the next two days, three more black men were shot. After ballistics tests, police concluded that all four were killed by the same weapon. Then, in early October, the bodies of two other black people were found, beaten and stabbed to death. Both men had had their hearts cut from their chests.

Several days later, the cross was set on fire. The next day, October 10, a nurse came across a white man who was trying to strangle a black man lying face down in a hospital bed. He survived, but the attack left him incapacitated and in need of surgery. During those weeks, six African-American men were brutally murdered. The series of deaths overlapped with a series of baffling disappearances of black children in Atlanta, known as the Atlanta Child Murders, which heightened the terror.

In black neighborhoods in Buffalo, rumors circulated that the killings were the work of the Ku Klux Klan. During one of the funerals, the Associated Press reported, two wagonloads of white people passed with a “mannequin with grotesque head wounds painted red” and threw red paint on the hearse. City officials scoffed at the idea that organized racists were involved in the killings, and a state NAACP official admitted that the attacks may have been carried out by a single killer. “However, it is the climate of racism and conservatism in this country that is responsible,” she said. A black resident named Lattice Alexander told the Time“Some white people think black people are ahead of them, although that’s not entirely true. With the court rulings of the last few years and all this unemployment, they think they can lose something because of us.

After the killings, city officials faced growing fear and anger on Buffalo’s east side. Three years earlier, Arthur O. Eve, a state representative in the New York legislature, was set to be Buffalo’s first black mayor, after shockingly beating James Griffin, a former senator from state, in the mayoral primary. But Griffin, a high school dropout based in South Buffalo, a predominantly white area, resurfaced in the general election to the Conservative Party line, running on the politics of white grievances: He opposed welfare, defended “law and order” and supported the death penalty. Eve had made a name for herself leading a solidarity committee that negotiated on behalf of prisoners at Attica State Prison in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion. Griffin described Eve as “soft on crime”. But, in the wake of the killings, Griffin lowered city flags and called for calm. Black youths pelted cars driven by whites with rocks. Jesse Jackson came to town to plead for peace. Griffin, in a public plea, said, “We cannot let wicked and vicious crimes like these tear us apart. . . . Buffalo is the city of good neighbours.

Local leaders have often invoked the coined nickname of the city’s “good neighbors” to promote a serious unity ethic in Buffalo. Following a racially motivated mass shooting at a Tops grocery store that left 10 African Americans dead, current Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown made the familiar call, saying, “We are strong as a community and working to not let this horrible act of hate stop us from being a loving, warm and welcoming community. Buffalo is known as the city of good neighbours, nationally and internationally. When New York Governor Kathy Hochul joined President Joe Biden in speaking in the city to express her condolences and outline her plan to prevent such attacks in the future, she made similar gestures. She compared Buffalo to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Biden is from. Hochul said, “Buffalo is kind of like Scranton, a little bigger version of Scranton. You know, Scranton. You live long and love your community, but get a little knocked down and don’t quite get the respect sometimes like other parts of your state do. She went on to say that, therefore, “there is something called Buffalove. It is a combination of the words “Buffalo” and “love”. We call it Buffalove.

The effort to console and empathize can just as easily distort and conceal. Buffalo is not like Scranton, which has never had a population over eight percent African American. It’s more like Philadelphia or Newark, with a large black population making up more than a third of the city. As in those cities, there is severe residential segregation, which keeps black and white residents in different social, economic, and political realities. In 1993, a writer for the local daily, the Buffalo New, compared Main Street, the city’s central dividing line, to the Berlin Wall, “separating the rich from the poor, the haves from the have-nots.” Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the country and almost half of the children who live there are poor. But the difficulties that define the city are not shared equally. A disproportionate number of the poor live on Buffalo’s East Side, where more than three-quarters of the city’s African-American residents live.

Last fall, the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies released a report titled “The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present.” The report followed a similar report my father, Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., had produced nearly thirty-one years earlier. The main findings were amazing in their similarity. In 1990, black unemployment stood at eighteen percent and the average household income was thirty-nine thousand dollars a year. Thirty-eight percent of blacks lived below the poverty line; there were more African Americans who had dropped out of high school than with college degrees; and less than thirty-five percent of African Americans owned their own homes. Last year, black unemployment was 11%; the average income was forty-two thousand dollars a year; some thirty-five percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line; and only thirty-two percent owned their homes. There are always more black dropouts than black college graduates. For most ordinary black people, time has stood still. As the report concluded, “Everything changed, but everything remained the same.”

When these conditions exist for decades, they come to be seen as the natural order of things. On the city’s largely white West Side, there are brick homes, grocery stores, shops, and beautiful parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. On the east side are ninety-four percent of the city’s vacant land. In 2014, Evans Bank in Buffalo was sued by the state attorney general for engaging in modern redlining, excluding the entire East Side of Buffalo from its mortgages. (Bank officials have denied racism was a factor.) Money is pouring into a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills and the restoration of the city’s Art Deco-style Central Terminal. Meanwhile, on the east side, residents are struggling with broken sidewalks, most of which, according to the Center for Urban Studies, “don’t even have ramps and crosswalks.”

When Joe Biden traveled to Buffalo to console the city, he spoke passionately about white supremacy, saying, “We let it grow and fester before our eyes. . . . No more, no more. We need to say as clearly and forcefully as possible that white supremacist ideology has no place in America. But racial segregation and poverty were among the conditions that made Black Buffalonians vulnerable to a white supremacist attack. (The shooter searched the internet by zip code, looking for a location with a high density of black residents.) Calls for reforms on these issues have been largely ignored.

About Mitchel McMillan

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