May 17


Buffalo is Segregation City

In light of the supermarket massacre, it’s time to address the systemic concentration of Blacks on the East Side and the under-investment and over-policing of their community
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Editor’s Note: The story below published May 17. The companion television story, produced wth WGRZ, aired July 7.

Buffalo and Western New York need to take a close look in the mirror in light of Saturday’s supermarket massacre.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not going to like what we see.

The region has a long history of racism, one that has been compounded in recent years by a growing undercurrent of right-wing extremism. Witness Saturday’s shootings.

In this column, I’m going to explore racism and its impact. Tomorrow, I’ll delve into the radical right.

Hear me out.

Related reading: The rise of the radical right in WNY

The Partnership for the Public Good released a study  in 2018 that reported the Buffalo area ranked as the sixth-most segregated metropolitan region in the nation. 

Said PPG:

“While racial segregation has declined slightly in recent years, economic segregation has increased, resulting in neighborhood conditions growing worse — not better — for most people of color in the region. Segregation imposes a wide range of costs on people of color, impairing their health, education, job access, and wealth. Individuals living in segregated neighborhoods tend to have less access to services that allow adequate standards of living, and their economic mobility is severely impaired.”

A few numbers illustrate the degree of the segregation, both across Erie and Niagara counties and within the city: 

  • While Blacks account for 35.2 percent of Buffalo’s population, they account for just 6.1 percent of residents in the balance of the metropolitan area. Town after village after school district are overwhelmingly white.
  • 85 percent of Blacks in the city live east of Main Street, according to the PPG study. 

The problems don’t end with segregation. Predominantly Black neighborhoods in Buffalo also suffer from under-investment and over-policing.

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A study released last fall by the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies concluded that the city’s Black residents have not made progress over the past 30 years. In some ways, they’re faring worse.

As Investigative Post reported at the time:

City leaders, including the last three mayors — Jimmy Griffin, Anthony Masiello and Byron Brown — never fully invested in a comprehensive action plan to address core problems facing Buffalo’s Black residents, the study concluded. 

Instead, the city continued to emphasize a failed agenda that promoted economic development in certain areas of the city while “marginalizing and under-developing” Black communities and neighborhoods, said Henry Taylor, who authored the report.

I spoke Tuesday with Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies, and he said poor housing and rent gouging are the most pressing issues facing the Black community. Indeed, a fair share of neighborhoods east of Main Street are blighted by dilapidated houses, some occupied, some boarded up, and vacant lots where houses stood until the city went on a demolition blitz. 

Taylor faulted the city for not enforcing its building codes.

“Substandard housing is the root cause of many other problems,” he said.

Chief among them is lead poisoning. Buffalo, for several decades, has recorded high rates of lead poisoning among young children. One observer declared the city “ground zero” for the problem. 

Yet the city has been slow to act, and while more inspections are finally being conducted, resources for abating lead remains sorely lacking. It’s perhaps the most glaring example of the lack of investment in the East Side.

Poverty is also a consequence of segregation. Buffalo remains one of the poorest cities in the country, the third-poorest, actually, with a poverty rate of 29 percent. It’s even worse for children, 43 percent, ranking second-worst in the nation.

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That poverty helps to explain another depressing statistic: Buffalo’s violent crime rate ranks as the 12th worst among 79 mid-sized cities in the United State. True, the violent crime rate has dropped over the years, but that’s been the case almost everywhere.

City Hall has attempted to deal with violent crime with several failed initiatives that have not sat well with the Black community, as evidenced by a survey of 2,018 city residents in 2016 by Open Buffalo, a local social justice organization. Only 43 percent of Black respondents said they trust the police. Just 12 percent said they believe police respect people of color.

Indeed, police have a reputation for heavy-handedness

Four Black and Hispanic men have been shot and killed by Buffalo police since 2017. 

A street crimes unit was disbanded in 2018 in the face of widespread complaints of misconduct. 

Traffic enforcement has targeted minority neighborhoods, a move that coincided with the city jacking up fines and penalties for violations. While the city eventually rolled back some of the fines and fees, it continues to hand out a lot of traffic tickets, primarily in minority neighborhoods

City budget priorities, for at least the past 16 years under Mayor Byron Brown, have skewed towards funding police at the expense of programs proven to alleviate crime’s root causes or  to help rebuild besieged neighborhoods. Since 2006, the police budget has risen at three times the rate of all other city departments, according to an Investigative Post analysis. Overtime and bonuses for police by themselves amount to more than the city allocates collectively for parks, recreation and community services. 

The mayor’s proposed budget for the coming year repeats the refrain, with a $5.4 million increase for police.

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One program that has not suffered financially is the city’s school system, although it’s been no thanks to the city. The district’s budget has steadily grown over the years and stands at $1 billion. The state provides 83 percent of the funding. City support has remained flat at a frugal $70.8 million.

A court-ordered desegregation of schools starting in 1976 prompted a fair amount of white flight. Public schools are now 81 percent students of color, compared with 57 percent of the city’s population as a whole. As a result, schools have re-segregated: Nearly half — 27 of 60 schools — are at least 90 percent students of color. That figure is as high as 98 percent in a handful of cases.

Attendance and academic achievement are atrocious. 

Fewer than one-third of elementary and middle school students score at proficient levels on state standardized tests that gauge reading, writing and math skills. At some schools, proficiency levels are less than 20 percent.

Only 18 percent of students showed up for class at what authorities consider “satisfactory” frequency through March of this school year. More than twice as many — 39 percent — missed school at least one day a week, which places them at “severe” risk of lower academic achievement.

Employers complain that too many graduates lack sufficient reading and math skills. Yet the district is content to graduate students who are functionally illiterate.

So, in a nutshell, most Blacks live in segregated neighborhoods that suffer from disinvestment and aggressive policing. Most have little choice but to send their kids to segregated schools where relatively few students thrive and at least a quarter don’t even graduate.

All this didn’t just happen by chance. 

It’s the result of decisions made by political and business leaders over decades, some flat-out racist, some made without thought to their impact on people of color. When there has been progress, it’s usually  the result of agitation and litigation. Witness the lawsuits to desegregate the schools and public housing and diversify the police and fire departments. 

The situation also reflects the attitude of many whites living in Western New York.  They live comfortably in their all-white enclaves, send their kids to all-white schools and keep electing the people responsible for this mess.

How do you like what you see in the mirror? If not about yourself, the community you live in. And more importantly, what are you prepared to do about it?

Thoughts, prayers and perhaps a small cash donation to the families of victims aren’t enough at this point.

Layne Dowdall and Geoff Kelly contributed to this column.

Tomorrow: The rise of the radical right in Western New York.

Investigative Post

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