Historical trends that explain the Buffalo shooting
Saturday’s massacre of ten African-Americans in Buffalo by an allegedly avowed White supremacist tragically takes its place in the long history of American racial terrorism. Accused 18-year-old Payton Gendron drove 3½ hours from his home in Conklin, New York, to execute a plan, based on a self-produced screed, months in the making. According to the document, he specifically targeted the Tops supermarket in East Buffalo because it was heavily frequented by the Black community. Dressed in body armour and wielding a semi-automatic rifle, Gendron allegedly gunned down unsuspecting Black shoppers. Wearing a helmet camera, he made a point to livestream the attack and the carnage left in his wake.
Gendron’s screed referred to Dylann Roof — who murdered nine African-Americans in a Bible study at the revered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 — as a “freedom fighter” and shared many of the same beliefs that Black people and other people of colour threatened to take over the country and overturn the supposed historical dominance of the White race.
Like Charleston, the Buffalo shooting once again exposes the brutal history of racist violence in the United States and its particularly horrific legacy in the African-American experience. These violent episodes are not an anomaly, but part of an ongoing tradition of attacks on Black citizenship and humanity.
Historical context is necessary to fully grasp the significance of the Buffalo shooting. White-supremacist terrorism targeting people of colour, and African-Americans in particular, has a deep national history — one not limited just to the South. But local history is also important to understanding this horrific incident. Buffalo’s unique history of African-American freedom, civil rights struggle and perseverance in the face of structural racism and economic neglect remind us of why Gendron targeted this particular community and why this shooting is especially heinous.
Buffalo occupies an important place in the history of antislavery activism and radical abolitionism. It served as a key station of the Underground Railroad, one of the last stops for fugitive enslaved people seeking freedom in Canada. The famed Black abolitionist William Wells Brown made the city his home. Buffalo was the site of the 1843 National Convention of Coloured Citizens, where attendees listened to speeches from notable figures such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, who boldly exhorted enslaved people to fight for their freedom.
The birth of the modern 20th-century civil rights movement can also be traced through the city. African-American educator, clubwoman, suffragist and anti-lynching activist Mary Talbert organised protests against racist depictions of Black people at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. In 1905, Talbert hosted the first meeting of the Niagara Movement, which served as a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, founded in 1909.
Buffalo’s Black population rapidly expanded owing to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South during the era between the beginning of the First World War and Second World War. Black people sought social freedom as well as economic opportunity in the city’s booming steel industries. In the process they developed a vibrant community, teeming with businesses, social uplift organisations and religious institutions, such as Friendship Baptist Church where C.L. Franklin, the noted preacher and father of the legendary singer Aretha Franklin, once served as pastor.
Despite its history as a space of Black freedom, Buffalo was not immune to the structural forces of White supremacy and institutionalised racism. Housing discrimination and redlining shaped predominantly Black East Buffalo and the Masten Park neighbourhood, making it one of the most racially segregated areas in the nation. In the 1960s, construction of Kensington Expressway through the heart of the community displaced hundreds of residents, destroyed the scenic Humboldt Parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and cut off access to basic resources such as banks and grocery stores. High poverty rates, underfunded schools, lack of quality housing, overpolicing and health disparities have since plagued African-Americans in the city.
But this type of racist structural violence has also fuelled local civil rights activism.
Indeed, the 2003 opening of the Tops supermarket was the result of longstanding agitation for a desperately needed shopping option. As activist Leslie Mac, after speaking with Buffalo native Takiyah Amin, explained in a Twitter thread, it stands as the “lone grocery store in what is otherwise a food desert”. Saturday afternoons at Tops functioned as a time of gathering, especially for Black women, who numbered six of the ten killed on Saturday. The Black victims, Mac emphasised, “were targeted in a place that is centred on community. A place they fought for to meet their needs”.
In the aftermath of Charleston, many commentators placed the massacre in the specific history of Southern racial violence. Buffalo reminds us that racial terrorism against African-Americans has never been contained by geography. Racial violence, such as the 1908 Springfield, Illinois riot, the August 13, 1911 lynching of Zachariah Walker in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, riots in Chicago and Washington during the “Red Summer” of 1919 and countless incidents of police brutality have shaped the “northern” African-American experience. No matter what part of the country, Black people have never been safe.
The vulnerability of Black people to racist violence has become more acute in recent years. Since 2015 and the Charleston shooting, the problem of White supremacy and White supremacist violence has worsened. As a Washington Post investigation notes, “Since 2015, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities”. The findings also revealed, “More than a quarter of right-wing incidents and just under half of the deaths in those incidents were caused by people who showed support for White supremacy or claimed to belong to groups espousing that ideology”. In May 2021, the Justice Department identified White nationalism as the biggest domestic terrorism threat facing the country.
Much of this can be directly attributed to the election and presidency of Donald Trump, which fuelled White nationalist rage and provided a veneer of legitimacy. From the mouths of Fox News host Tucker Carlson to congressional representatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, once far-right fringe ideologies like White replacement theory have become part of mainstream political discourse. These ideas have found fertile soil in a White power movement that has steadily grown in size since the post-Vietnam era.
In our present moment, White nationalists have set their sights on multiple targets. People from the Jewish, Muslim, Latinx, Asian-American, Native American and LGBTQ+ communities have come under attack. And each of these groups has its own particular history with White-supremacist violence in this country.
Anti-Black racial terrorism, however, has remained at the core of American history from the nation’s founding to the present. To be Black in America is to live with the historical legacies and multigenerational trauma of racist violence. This is the history that right-wing attacks on critical race theory and efforts to ban books seek to suppress. A failure to understand America’s racist history and the violence that has shaped it only further emboldens countless White supremacists lurking in the shadows.
Understanding the Buffalo massacre, like Charleston before it, requires recognising the power of history and how it shapes the present. The massacre will leave a deep scar on Buffalo’s Black community, as well as on the collective psyches of African-Americans throughout the country. This is the function of White-supremacist terrorism. Combating this evil requires marshalling every historical tool at our disposal.
• Chad Williams is the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, and author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era
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