The Buffalo Shooter Targeted a City Haunted by Segregation
The Tops supermarket on Buffalo’s Jefferson Avenue is surrounded by streets lined with dilapidated houses. Around the corner is a small strip with two barbershops, a nail salon, and a heavily guarded M&T Bank. This area of town is rarely visited. It was packed with TV news crews, local churches and groups of volunteers offering food assistance to the community just after it had been hit by a bomb.
This gunman, who is accused of shooting 10 people over the weekend in this area, made no secret of his motivation. He came to Tops “to take as many Black lives as possible,” as Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said. Payton Gendron was not an accident.
Gendron, according to reports, posted an online racist manifesto before the massacre. According to reports, Gendron wrote the N word on the gun that he used during the attack. The Buffalo News. And law enforcement officials confirmed that the 18-year-old from Broome County, N.Y.—more than a three-hour drive from the Queen City—had conducted reconnaissance on the Tops location, with the intent of capitalizing on the neighborhood’s concentration of Black people.
In deliberately targeting a grocery store in the heart of Buffalo’s Black community, the accused assailant took advantage of the fact that Buffalo is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. Roughly 85% of the city’s Black residents live in the economically devastated East Side.
This is also no accident. It’s a legacy that dates to World War I, when Buffalo was a major steel city producing much of the machinery American forces were using in Europe. This led to a wealth of employment opportunities in Western New York, which was where many Black Americans arrived in search for economic opportunity.
It didn’t take long, however, for racial tension and violence to erupt in the 1910s. The city’s public officials quickly responded by restricting Blacks from living in white neighborhoods. Buffalo’s City Hall and New York state government enacted racist zoning laws, while white property owners began to use restrictive covenants to prevent their homes from later being sold to Black families, according to research by the Partnership for Public Good, a Buffalo think tank.
In 1948, the Supreme Court banned restrictive covenants. But racist federal policy housing was not stopped. FHA mortgage loans were not available to Blacks through redlining. This made it more difficult for these people to own homes, even in middle-class communities.
“The history of segregation is the history of institutionalized racism in our governments, in our banks, in the extension of credit and opportunity to white people that was intentionally not made available to Black people,” says Miles Gresham, a policy fellow at the Partnership for Public Good.
Police arrest a Buffalo teenager during second night of demonstrations on June 28, 1967.
Bettmann Archives/Getty Images
The problem got worse in Buffalo after World War II, when the construction of a highway in the 1950s and ’60s split the city in half. Just blocks away from Tops, the Kensington Expressway destroyed an expanding Black community and divided the city into two sides.
“The Kensington Expressway made it easier for white people who had had engaged in white flight and moved out into the suburbs to still travel to the economic centers of the area,” Gresham says. It also created a new reality in which everything east of the highway—a portion of Buffalo that was already heavily Black—fell into poverty and economic disrepair, while the rest of the town fared much better. Today, more than one-third of the city’s 255,000 residents live below the poverty line. The East Side is home to the majority of these people.
The opening of Jefferson Avenue Tops in this area of Buffalo was huge. Hillary Clinton was the former Senator. cameThank you for cutting the ribbon. Before Tops came along, this neighborhood was a notorious food desert, with no nearby grocery stores. It was an acute problem for the community, particularly since many of its impoverished residents didn’t have access to a car.
Betty Jean Grant was an old Buffalo politician and pushed for Tops while she was on Buffalo Common Council. She says that the region was in dire need of help. “In the 1990s, to have a white person walking east of the Humboldt Expressway or the 33, would have been like a ghost,” Grant says. “They’d be like somebody from Mars, because people did not walk on the East Side of Buffalo.”
Buffalo as a whole has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past decade, from the building of Canalside—a redeveloped district that has revived the town’s Lake Erie waterfront—to the expansion of commercial strips and a new medical campus downtown. But the East Side, home to the Black working-class community of Buffalo, has been left neglected. Buffalo remains one the most impoverished large American cities.
“The fact that there’s only one grocery store on the East Side that serves Black communities is a choice,” says India Walton, an activist and former Democratic candidate for mayor. “This is not something that’s like accidental. No one cares about Black people on the East Side of Buffalo.”
Activists like Walton, now a senior adviser for the Working Families Party, are pushing not only for policy action to combat racism and extremist violence but also for the city’s leaders to address the legacy of segregation and inequality that has plagued Buffalo for a century.
“People are tired,” Walton says. “I’m personally ready to burn this sh-t down. That can be recorded. We’re not taking this anymore.”
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