Paula C. Johnson is Professor of Law at Syracuse University College of Law. She directs the Cold Case Justice Initiative and teaches Race and Law, among other subjects at the College of Law.
Celestine Chaney, 65, Roberta A. Drury, 32, Andre Mackneil, 53, Katherine Massey, 72, Margus D. Morrison, 52, Heyward Patterson 67, Aaron Salter Jr., 55, Geraldine Talley, 62, Ruth Whitfield, 86, Pearl Young, 77
A week ago on Saturday, the unfathomable once again became the reality in America when racist violence struck in Buffalo, killing 10 and injuring three of our fellow human beings. All of the victims of the 18-year-old white murderer’s rampage were Black, and two of the injured were white. The anguish and anger caused by the killer’s terrorist acts is not only the senseless loss of such beautiful lives, ranging from ages 32 to 86, but also the sheer mendacity of killer’s planning and the mundaneness of victims’ activities when they were killed.
Racial hatred has become much too common. And it would be wrong to think that this latest mass assault on Black lives began on that awful Saturday; Buffalo is only the most recent episode. As must be clear by now, racism permeates all areas of U.S. society, constantly rupturing lives, families and communities. During slavery and after the Civil War, racist terror reigned against people of African descent with brutality and policies that entrenched their second-class status in the U.S.
After passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which conferred citizenship, equal protection and due process, and voting rights to the formerly enslaved, Black people’s attempts to assert their full citizenship and voting rights were met with lynchings by racist marauders and institutional practices that denied democratic participation, diluted Black communities’ votes, and thwarted their opportunities for meaningful political change. Today, these efforts still subvert Black voters’ rights and access through the violence of increasingly restrictive access to voting, which disproportionately disenfranchises Black and other voters of color.
Specifically to Buffalo, the atrocities last week have revealed longstanding disparities and discrimination against Black communities there. As occurred in so many cities across America, urban renewal ushered in demolition of once-thriving Black communities. The Kensington Expressway physically divided the city along racial lines and with it, thereby hastening and structurally embedding the dislocation, isolation and decline of the Black community. This dismemberment of Buffalo along racial lines severed the Black community’s access to investment, services and necessary resources like grocery stores, and other amenities that wealthier and moderate-income white communities take for granted. This is why, of course, in the most perverse way, it was easy for the avowed white supremacist killer to locate the Black victims he sought to annihilate. It was clear where the greatest concentration of Black citizens could be found, due to decades of political and economic decisions that relegated them to a primary geographical area in the city. Kudos to Tops Friendly Market for defying this disinvestment trend and locating in the Black neighborhood, in what otherwise was described as a “food desert.”
Much has been said in the aftermath of the shootings about “the Great Replacement Theory.” The theory is neither great, nor is the violence that it foments new. It is simply a restatement of longstanding racist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic tropes that espouse racial superiority and demand white racial purity and political dominance over others. As an adherent to these beliefs, the killer stated in his screed that he learned this hateful vitriol largely online; but surely these views also were imbued from the purveyors of the same rhetoric under the guise of legitimate media or political discourse.
This ideology must be rejected outright. Just as learning is critical to the indoctrination of hate, so must it be a critical part of the commitment to knowledge and change. Such learning requires that at all education levels, students and society at large, conduct comprehensive awareness and searing analysis of the history of this country in ways that reveal its attributes as well as its flaws. This includes understanding the ways that historical racism – individual and institutional – continue to inform and affect the present. As author James Baldwin astutely remarked, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The events in Buffalo have left many of us with a numbness that is hard to overcome. We are bereft and feel paralyzed and powerless against the onslaught of hate that we experience or see in our common existence. But our society need not stay mired in the muck of racism, white supremacy, violence, injustice and inequity. We are once again at a defining moment in America, which forces us to look at ourselves and decide who we are and who we will be.
As a start, I call for a replacement to replacement theory. Replace it with knowledge, education, and equitable economic, legal and political systems. This grief, hatred and injustice must end. If we have the political will, we can address the social, legal and policy demands that these situations demand. It will take the commitment of all members of this society, because as we have seen, all of our lives and the future of our society depend on it.
Condolences to the victims and family members of this heinous act against humanity that occurred in Buffalo. May their memories be a blessing, a lesson and a call to conscience to us all.
Related: Mourners gather in Syracuse for the funeral of Buffalo shooting victim Roberta Drury