The roots, and consequences, of WNY’s racism

Problem begins with segregation. Solutions? They're evident, but where is the leadership to effect change?
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Note: This column originally appeared in Buffalo Spree.

Our nation has a lot of work ahead of it if it is to address the structural racism laid bare by COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed.

Buffalo and Western New York have an even heavier lift.

Much of the initial focus has been on reform of the Buffalo Police Department, and that’s certainly a good place to start. But the region’s problems run deeper – much deeper.

They begin with segregation, which, going back generations, has advantaged whites at the expense of blacks in any number of ways, including health, education, public safety and access to jobs.

Buffalo-Niagara ranks as the sixth-most segregated metropolitan area in the nation. Blacks and Hispanics are concentrated in the city, whites in the suburbs. That separation has been reinforced by the multitude of cities, towns, villages and school districts – 105 to be exact in Erie and Niagara counties – and further exacerbated by suburban sprawl that has taken housing and jobs further and further from the urban core – and people of color – even as the region’s population has shrunk.

“Buffalo’s intense segregation is not an accident,” concluded a 2018 report by the Partnership for the Public Good. “It resulted from decades of federal, state, and local policies, many of which were explicitly racist, while others were facially neutral but had devastating impacts. The overlapping racial and economic segregation in this region is a prime driver of inequality, and it will take concerted efforts and a variety of policy tools to reverse it.”

Our region is also segregated economically. As a whole, our share of residents living in poverty is about 14 percent, around the national average. But a 2016 study by the Partnership for the Public Good found one-third of Buffalo-Niagara’s blacks live in poverty, compared with less than 10 percent of whites. Buffalo itself ranks among the 10 poorest cities in the nation, and the problem is especially pronounced among children.

Poverty is associated with a number of social problems, including education, and poor student achievement among students of color in Buffalo schools is not surprising when you consider nearly half the city’s children live in households below the poverty line. Only about a quarter of city school students score at proficient levels in reading and math, and the numbers are worse for those of color.

That’s just a sampling of the depressing indicators that underscore the problem we’re up against.

What to do about it?

Let’s start with the city.

  • Get serious about lead poisoning, which is an epidemic in the inner city. There’s no mystery what needs doing, a coalition led by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo spelled it all out two years ago. Erie County has done its part, the city hasn’t.
  • Improve the quality of housing by overhauling the city’s chronically ineffective code enforcement program and its slap-on-the-wrist Housing Court. Housing requires a lot of investment.
  • Overhaul the Police Department and the Board of Adult Employment, er, I mean Education. Neither are operated for the benefit of the public and have a particularly detrimental effect on people of color.

Police brutality is a pretty well established fact of life. What most people don’t realize is the cops here, as in most other big cities, don’t prevent crime or catch the bad guys once the deed is done. I did a study several years ago that found Buffalo has one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates, and a decidedly middling track record of solving them. Buffalo cops catch the bad guys only about one-third of the time. So why are we spending so much money on traditional policing? Some of that money would be better spent on related services.

As for the schools, yes, teachers have a big challenge because of the impoverished students that populate their classrooms, but I’m sorry, passing underachievers on from grade to grade and graduating kids lacking the math, reading and writing skills they need to earn a decent living is simply unacceptable.

The problems are not the city’s to solve alone. Business and the suburbs, which is to say, white people, need to step up if there is to be real progress. Whites put discriminatory policies and practices in place and it’s their responsibility to dismantle them.

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Start with investments to provide more options for affordable housing, thus providing better access to jobs and good schools.

Outlying towns should use their land-use powers to stop sprawl, which only serves to diffuse jobs and make them more difficult for lower-income people to reach.

Meanwhile, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority needs to stop planning for a costly extension of Metro Rail, which would serve mostly white commuters, and invest in a better bus system to help the truly transit dependent.

Big picture: Stop talking about throwing money at football stadiums, hockey arenas and convention centers and invest in infrastructure and services that benefit the less well-heeled. The city’s housing stock, libraries, community centers and the like all require capital improvements. Spend the money there.

Finally, let’s not fool ourselves about the ability, or even willingness, of this community’s power structure to lead the charge. With a few exceptions, they’re not really interested, and that starts with Mayor Byron Brown. He’s done little during his 14 years in office to tackle the issues and his actions since the protests began reek of political expediency.

I don’t see any other obvious leaders, either, especially among those who lead the suburban towns and school districts. What I do see are politicians like Stefan Mychajliw and Mickey Kearns, along with their patrons like Carl Paladino, continuing to play the race card. This community needs to reject racist politicians.

I think it’s going to take a new generation of leadership to challenge our community’s institutional racism. It’s time they got serious about governing.

Everyone stands to benefit from charge. Let’s face it, Buffalo-Niagara has been an economic backwater for going on a half-century while more progressive regions have thrived. Our old ways aren’t working – in fact, they never did. They hurt everyone. It’s time whites woke up to that reality.