The Buffalo Attack Is Part of a Long History of Racial Terror

The Buffalo Attack Is Part of a Long History of Racial Terror

The Buffalo Attack Is Part of a Long History of Racial Terror

How does a system that devalues Black lives expect the members of society to value them?


Our Buffalo community is grieving right now. We’re grieving for Pearl Young, a grandmother who volunteered every Saturday at her church’s food pantry. We’re grieving for Miss Kat Massey, a dear friend of mine who would write a $10 check every month to the community land trust I ran. We’re grieving for Londin Thomas, an 8-year-old Black girl who hid in a milk cooler while a mass shooter opened fire on a supermarket full of shoppers in East Buffalo, killing 10 people and wounding three others. Londin survived, but she will live with the trauma of that day for the rest of her life. The shooter’s victims were mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties—pillars of our community who were looked up to and loved.

Many elected officials and leaders have offered their “thoughts and prayers” to our community. But I’m going to be frank with you: If those kind words aren’t backed up with action, you can keep them.

This attack was not an isolated incident. It is part of a long history of racial terror and violence that dates all the way back to the country’s inception. Colfax, in 1873; Tulsa, in 1921; Rosewood, in 1923; Birmingham, in 1963—and now Buffalo. Black people’s existence in this country, since we first were taken from our homes, has been marked by terror. And if we’re not working actively to undo the systems of racism and harm, then nothing in this country will change.

The fact that Buffalo is one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation didn’t happen by chance, but by design. The Kensington Expressway was built to move people from the center of Buffalo to the suburbs as quickly as possible without having to witness the poor living conditions of the city’s Black residents. Even today, people in East Buffalo, through which the highway runs, have higher rates of asthma and other preventable health conditions.

Racism, similarly, is baked into our nation’s political and economic systems. It’s why we still have the Jim Crow filibuster, which stands in the way of commonsense gun laws and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It’s why Black Buffalonians have suffered from decades of disinvestment, dispossession, and exploitation at the hand of big banks, landlords, and corporations.

The Tops supermarket where the shooting happened is in the heart of a Black working-class neighborhood in East Buffalo that continues to experience housing disrepair, air and water pollution, and poor access to health care, jobs, and food. The Tops store was one of the few places where people could buy fresh produce and fill their prescriptions and where young people could find stable jobs. Now, with the supermarket closed, people have nowhere to shop, and food apartheid in East Buffalo will grow even worse.

Following the attack, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown called for more funding for the notoriously brutal Buffalo Police Department. But more police and surveillance in our community wouldn’t have stopped this attack. And we owe it to our communities not to throw false solutions at the problem. If we want to prevent future tragedies, we need to begin addressing racism and white supremacy at its source, not at its culmination. How does a system that devalues Black lives expect the members of society to value them?

Our leaders can no longer afford to run away from these issues, because they’re not going away. We need to treat white supremacy and structural racism as the moral crises that they are and make deep investments in Black and brown communities. Redlining and housing covenants made our community an easy target. The shooter was able to narrow down his list to a few locations where Black residents shop because of decades of racist policies.

We also need to increase the funding for community-based and culturally competent organizations providing care and support to people on the ground. We must combat the dangerous myths—like replacement theory—being promoted by the GOP and right-wing media outlets. And we must push back against nationwide efforts to prevent teaching the truth about our history in schools.

The shooter will be incarcerated for a long time. But there is no punishment that can erase the fear and trauma that people experienced or turn back the clock on that terrifying afternoon. True safety for our communities will come only when we have the courage to stand up to white supremacy and racism in their many forms.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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