Shopping While Black: Fight Racist Violence with Multiracial Unity

Mourners in Buffalo, May 2022

by Karyn Pomerantz

The constant drum beat of white supremacy has enabled the murderers of many people: black Bible Study members in Charlotte, Asian women workers in Georgia, Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh, and Latinx shoppers in Texas. Now a white supremacist has killed 10 black residents in Buffalo. Shopping, working, and worshipping while black, Latin, Jewish, and Asian can get you killed. This shooting is a horrific outcome of the racism in Buffalo and elsewhere.

These attacks appear to be the random work of deranged people. While mental illness may be a factor, these men are deeply influenced by racism. It is hard to predict the exact time and place of these murders, but the intentional and perpetual inculcation of racist ideas by US capitalism ensures that it will sow division and distrust and erupt in violence.

After the shooting, The Washington Post polled a national sample of black residents on its effects, revealing a high level of mistrust of white workers and the police:

  • 70% believed half of whites held racist ideas
  • 55% wanted more economic investment to alleviate poverty and neglected communities instead of increased policing favored by 24%
  • 1 in 4 considered buying a gun (Washington Post, Poll: Black Americans fear more attacks after Buffalo. 5-22-2022, A3).

Some white faces appeared at the funerals and vigils, but more white residents must overcome the segregation and reach out to their black neighbors with support and activism.  While living conditions and racist violence differ in degree between black and white residents, both groups have high rates of poverty, 31% and 18% respectively, both over the 13% in New York State (Census data, 2000-2020, https://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Buffalo-New-York.html).

This article describes how Buffalo businessmen promote segregation and racism to produce wealth for themselves and poor health, educational, and economic outcomes for black residents. It calls for building multiracial solidarity while rejecting the identity politics that divide us into separate silos.

Buffalo

Buffalo is a predominantly white city with a long history of segregation and racism. It is the 6th most segregated city in the US behind NYC and Milwaukee.  Most (85%) of black residents live on the East Side of Buffalo that is disconnected from wealthier white neighborhoods by a highway built in 1950 that destroyed a park and reinforced segregation. Segregation limits black access to better schools, jobs, and resources, and reduces opportunities to build multiracial friendships.

Median black income is $42,000 and a Gini (inequality) score for NY State is higher than the national score. White students earn close to 4 times the number of college degrees as black students; the median in-state tuition of $30,000 limits young people from entering college.

Neighborhood Factors

Red lining, gentrification, predatory loans, restrictive covenants, and redlining have segregated communities since WWI (Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit,2019). Only 32% of Buffalo black residents own their own homes.

As black workers settled in Buffalo and other cities, they were concentrated in public housing developments run by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

The Authority offered housing vouchers, money to rent housing wherever landlords accepted them, as a way out of public housing. White renters took most of the vouchers while black renters waited on long lists, a common situation in many cities.

Police surveillance and arrests proliferated in the public housing units. While black residents accounted for 14% of the population, they comprised 43% of arrests, increasing the chance of incarceration.

The housing crisis in 2008 caused massive mortgage and tax foreclosures in Buffalo, leaving 73% of whites and 29% of blacks owning homes.

Employment

Black residents suffer high unemployment rates at 11% versus 4% for whites (not counting those who work part time or have stopped looking for jobs), a result of high arrest rates, lower educational attainment, and transportation access to job sites.

Most service jobs moved out to the suburbs becoming more inaccessible to East Side residents. Over 20% use public transportation, but 58% of the buses don’t travel to the locations that have jobs. The State University of New York (SUNY), a large employer, built its new campus in an area without access to public transportation (Partnership for the Public Good. A City Divided: Segregation in Buffalo, 2018).

Buffalo hosts numerous companies. Zippia, an employment resource organization provides information on company diversity, worker satisfaction, and salaries. It named UBS, an investment firm, as one of the best companies to work for. While the average salary is high, white workers dominate the workforce; Asian and Latin workers rank next; only 10% of the employees are black.  Zippia acknowledges that most employees vote Republican causing one to wonder how comfortable the work environment is for black workers (https://www.zippia.com/about-us/).

There are many healthcare facilities in Buffalo, including the well-known Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. While its web page highlights its commitment to diversity and inclusion, salaries for administrative and housekeeping jobs don’t top $40,000 while scribes (notetakers) make only $10 per hour. Indeed, a job resource company, interviewed employees who complained of management (“only concerned with the money”) and poor promotion opportunities. The hospital likely follows the typical racial stratifications with black employees holding lower paying jobs, such as transporters and housekeepers (https://www.indeed.com/cmp/Roswell-Park-Comprehensive-Cancer-Center/faq).

Buffalo also hosts many hospitality companies that provide jobs in restaurants and hotels. The average salaries for cleaners and restaurant hosts fall between the mid $20,000s to the low $30,000s ((https://www.zippia.com/). These jobs traditionally hire black and Latin workers but hardly offer a living wage or benefits.

Education

In 1972, parents, outraged by segregated public schools, filed a lawsuit to desegregate them (Arthur v Nyquist).   In 1976, Judge Curtin ruled that the schools had been deliberately segregated and ordered busing to integrate them. The strategy proved successful in reversing segregation in 70% of Buffalo schools. However, over time, segregation rose to 70% as few white students attended public schools in the School Board’s jurisdiction. The Civil Rights Project ranks Buffalo 21st in segregated schools out of 940 cities; about half of the Buffalo schools are 90% black (Buffalo News, 4-6-2014).

Buffalo spent more dollars per student (over $21,000 in 2015) than all but 2 other cities. However, this spending did not change the disparities in academic achievement or high school graduation rates (75% for white and 64% for black children). Less than 33% of elementary and middle school students tested proficient in reading, writing, and math (raising questions about teaching and the test itself). In 2020, 65% of college degrees went to white students compared to 17% of black students, and close to 6% of Latin students (https://datausa.io/profile/geo/buffalo-ny/). Such poor educational attainment excluded them from many jobs, especially those with higher salaries.

Food and Health

As the shooting revealed, the black neighborhoods suffer an extreme food desert with the TOPS market being the only grocery store and a frequent employer of East Side residents. Now that has closed, residents are relying on donations from food pantries that volunteers have opened. While there is poor access to good food, residents have easy contact with lead and pollution reflected in the high rate of hospitalization for asthma. The following chart displays the health status of white, black, Latin, and Asian residents of Erie County.

Health Disparities in Erie County, NY

Democratic Party Responses

The authors of the University of Buffalo report on the city’s racist inequities questioned how city leaders allowed them to persist:

After almost three decades of liberal Democratic rule, how could two liberal Democratic mayors still leave in their wake a Black community where African Americans remain stuck in underdeveloped neighborhoods, trapped in poverty, low-paying jobs, inadequate and unaffordable houses, and have bodies ravaged with disease and die prematurely (https://www.investigativepost.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/TaylorHL-The-Harder-We-Run.pdf)?”

Good question. Maybe the answer is that Democrats favor their rich benefactors, bankers, and developers, not working-class lives. We can’t vote out racist violence when the basic objective of this system is generating wealth and profit by exploiting people, especially workers of color.

President Joe Biden spoke in Buffalo having the nerve to say:

“A racially motivated hate crime is abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation … Any act of domestic terrorism, including an act perpetrated in the name of a repugnant white nationalist ideology, is antithetical to everything we stand for in America.”

It is everything the American capitalists stand for. Biden supported the 1994 Crime Bill that put more police on the street and currently proposed $30 billion for state and local police departments. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is pushing a budget increase for cops. (Remember this is the police force whose cops fractured the skull of a 75-year-old anti-racist protestor).

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House are supporting a bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022, which places domestic terrorism offices within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Justice Department, and the FBI for the next 10 years. The Bill requires these offices to track white supremacists, monitor hate crimes, and somehow “combat” them. The promotion of the Bill as anti-white supremacy convinced the Squad, the 4 progressive representatives in the House, to vote for it. The Bill has not passed yet, but every Democrat and 1 Republican voted for it.

People should not fall for this promise. Anti-terror legislation opens the door to surveil and harm innocent people, immigrants, and left-wing activists. After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act that harassed Muslims, curbed civil liberties, and allowed the FBI to demand Internet, phone communication, and library patrons’ loan and search histories. In one famous case, agents demanded the circulation records from a public library where a suspect visited. The librarians refused to share the information and were prohibited from speaking about it until Congress lifted the ban. Many libraries posted signs saying, “The FBI hasn’t been here. (Check back later)” to warn the public.

Such anti-terror programs typically target people with dissenting views, such as climate change, civil rights, and anti-war activists. The current bill includes provisions for the agencies to share data with one another and local police departments. Currently, many cities allow the police to share arrest records with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, making it easier to identify, detain, and deport people.

No one should trust the FBI. It has a rich history of attacks on union activists, socialists, and antiracist organizations. During the 1960s, the government used CONTELPRO to infiltrate radical groups and spy on the Black Panthers and opponents of the Vietnam War. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) targeted activists in Ferguson, Missouri protesting the murder of Michael Brown. Currently, it has labeled Black Lives Matter an “extremist identity group.”

While the government doesn’t want right wing groups to destabilize the country and provoke antiracist rebellion (as more black Americans are arming themselves), it will use anti-terror legislation to limit the ability of antiracist, labor, communist, and socialist groups to fight capitalism:

“And though racial and religious minorities will suffer the most under the weight of any new “domestic terror” law, political radicals and “extremists” (i.e., people with unpopular politics) should not be forgotten. Plenty of groups that you may not like or entirely condone are not necessarily terrorists, but they are called potentially violent and dangerous by the federal government https://www.thedailybeast.com/dont-use-the-buffalo-shooting-to-call-for-new-domestic-terrorism-laws).”

The ACLU also warns about the racist effects of these laws:

“New domestic terrorism laws will give the government even more power to surveil and criminalize communities of color. Existing counter terrorism laws have already disproportionately affected these communities, and new laws will only exacerbate the violence against them (https://www.aclu.org/news/national-security/new-domestic-terrorism-laws-wont-end-white-supremacy).

Racist Discourse: Divide and Control

The dissemination of racist ideology by the corporate media maintains ruling class control of the working-class. It amplifies disinformation about “racial” groups and immigrants, such as Trump characterizing immigrants as criminals or President Reagan disparaging black Moms on welfare. It saturates the airwaves with lies about the war in Ukraine whipping up public support for a war to benefit US business. Racist messages, embedded in the news, schools and social media, motivate white supremacists to kill with heart wrenching results.

Currently, right wing racists use “replacement theory” to instill hatred among white workers and justify their violence. This fraudulent theory asserts that when non-white workers, mainly black and immigrant, become the majority population, they will displace whites from jobs and political influence. (If you want to talk about replacement, talk about gentrification removing working-class neighborhoods).

Such a theory has been used to justify anti-immigration policies, the oppression of Palestinian workers whose birth rates top those of Israelis, European racism against African immigrants, and even access to contraception.

During the 1920s at the height of Jewish, and southern and eastern European immigration from Europe, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, advocated for contraception as a way of controlling “defective” populations. The eugenics movement called for the sterilization of “imbeciles,” primarily targeting poor, black, disabled, and Latinx people. From 1907 to 1981, states sterilized 60,000 people; California sterilized 20,000.

Fighting Racist Violence 

From the days of slavery through the uprisings in 2020, oppressed people have fought back against the racist violence. Enslaved people rebelled by escaping, mounting rebellions against plantation owners, and even joining multiracial groups to fight Confederate soldiers (Sally Jenkins. State of Jones, 2010). Throughout Reconstruction when freed black men could hold political office, the Klan organized raids to terrify neighborhoods into passivity. Instead, most homes contained a small arsenal of guns to defend themselves.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ida B. Wells used her journalistic positions to expose and denounce lynchings, surviving many threats to kill her. Moving to Chicago, she organized support for people arriving from the south and continued to publish her findings on anti-black violence, generating a national anti-lynching movement.

During the civil rights movement, black and white activists organized voter registration campaigns and Freedom Schools, facing beatings and threats on their lives (some successful). In response, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of older black WWII vets, organized 120 armed self-defense groups that shot back at KKK mobs that invaded their neighborhoods (Lance Hill, Deacons for Defense and Justice. 2006).

Multiracial struggles, often led by radical and communist organizations, countered more recent violence.

The multiracial International Committee Against Racism (InCAR):

  • fought the Klan and Nazis at their rallies around the US
  • invaded Nazi headquarters in Marquette Park, Chicago, where Nazis and other racists attacked black protestors demonstrating for housing integration,
  • helped desegregate beaches in Boston, and
  • weakened the Boston anti-school integration organization (ROAR) that stoned school buses carrying black children.

The uprisings over the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and countless other protests involved white, black, Latinx, and Asian young people marching together in the streets. In nearby Binghamton, NY, 100s demonstrated in the city that was once the center of Klan and Nazi activity.

Indigenous residents also have a history of fighting heroically against the US Army to save their land and its resources. In 2016, the “Water Protectors” of the Sioux Tribe in Standing Rock with 100s of non-indigenous people confronted the government over plans to build a pipeline through native land. Enduring brutal police force, they persevered for a year forcing the government to back down.

What Can We Do?

We need mass multiracial solidarity that organizes workers against capitalism and not against one another. This capitalist class uses nationalism and racism to maintain separation and division. They would not survive without it.

Therefore, they push identity politics that encourages people to pledge allegiance to their own group based on “race,” gender, or nationality, anything but class. It calls for unity across class lines, encouraging workers to rally around politicians and bosses if they share the same background. For example, many Asian Indian voters heaped praise on Kamala Harris since she shared the same background, ignoring her conservative role as a California prosecutor. Mainstream feminism often calls for unity between female bosses and the women they boss based solely on their shared gender, proclaiming common interests.

The long-term strategy of the U.S. ruling class is to keep white workers’ allegiance with a few reform crumbs while turning their misery under capitalist life into anger against their Black and immigrant working-class sisters and brothers—to exploit, divide, and conquer. Racism hurts white workers. For example, plantation owners used free black labor in their fields, paying white workers low wages while convincing them they were superior to enslaved workers. Later, many labor unions denied black workers membership, leaving black workers hired as scabs during strikes. This provoked white hatred and violence and weakened the power of the unions. On the other hand, the meatpackers union in Chicago under communist leadership in the 1930s welcomed black workers, appointed them to union leadership positions, and mobilized their members to protect black families desegregating white neighborhoods (Kevin Boyle. Arc of Justice, 2001).

Build Antiracist Class Consciousness

Our long-term strategy must be to reject racism, electoral politics, and divisive rhetoric. We need to build working-class consciousness that views workers connected in a class with common needs regardless of different backgrounds, nationality, and experiences.

The ruling class fears such solidarity; it depends on racist ideas and segregated lives to prevent trusting relationships and revolts of white, black, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous people.

Our ability to win reforms or seize power depends on building multiracial movements. We can build solidarity on the job and in unions to demand pay equity like DC’s Circulator bus drivers, in schools to organize for police-free campuses, in our neighborhoods to advocate for affordable housing, accessible transportation, supermarkets, and safety, and globally to ensure equitable health care. Solidarity between the black and white neighborhoods in Buffalo could win better schools and challenge the gentrification affecting working-class people. Eventually, such unity can diminish white nationalism, defeat the ruling class, and replace capitalism with an egalitarian society. “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

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