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It is horrific to say, but mass shootings have become so common in America that many of them barely register in the news. There have been more than 200 so far this year.
The killings at a grocery store in Buffalo on Saturday got the nation’s attention. Ten people were killed and three were injured. Most of the victims were black. The suspected shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, was white.
It appears that Gendron, who live-streamed the killings online and who wrote a hate-filled manifesto, targeted the store because it was in a Black neighborhood. He traveled about 200 miles from his predominantly white neighborhood near Binghampton, New York, to the Buffalo neighborhood, where police said he conducted surveillance before Sunday’s massacre.
Gendron specifically targeted Black Americans, it seems, because he was steeped in the racist beliefs about non-white people “replacing” white Americans and their culture. This so-called replacement theory is heinous – and wrong. America’s original culture is that of its indigenous people, not the white colonists who came from Europe and elsewhere. America today is a rich mixture of people, cultures and traditions.
It is easy, as others have done, to lay the blame for Gendron’s abhorrent behavior on white supremacists who spew the replacement nonsense and the talk show hosts and politicians who amplify their messages.
It is harder to consider the deep roots of this theory and how to eradicate it.
One answer is education, which we realize implies a long-term solution that is far from satisfactory. But, the best way to combat the dangerous notions that appear to have spurred Gendron and other killers to action is to teach America’s full history.
This means confronting the long history of policies that, whether they were racist by intent or by implementation, have too often left people of color behind in America.
Buffalo played a significant role in America’s anti-slavery movement as one of the last stops on the Underground Railway, a network that helped enslaved people, before Canada. It was also home to several abolitionist events and early civil rights activity.
Yet, Buffalo became one of the most segregated cities in America and the Masten Park area, where Sunday’s shootings occurred, was cut off from many vital services, such as grocery stores and banks, by a highway built through the area in the 1960s. Poverty rates are much higher in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Buffalo and educational attainment is lower.
The residents of Masten Park fought for years to have the Tops Friendly Market built in their neighborhood. One of those killed on Sunday, 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, had stopped into the market for a few groceries after her daily visit with her husband in a nearby nursing home.
“To those people who do not see us, how dare you not see us as Americans?” her son, Raymond Whitfield, said at a news conference on Monday. “We stand among the blood and the sweat and the tears of our ancestors. She taught us to be proud of that fact.”
The “sweat and tears of our ancestors” includes a long history of intentional discrimination, such as redlining and exclusion from government programs like the GI bill, and massacres like those in Tulsa and Rosewood. Events that have gotten little attention in the telling of American history.
Teaching about these events is essential, if uncomfortable. That’s why efforts to prevent such teaching – under the guises of parental control, patriotism and pride – are misguided. Ignoring these atrocities doesn’t make them go away, it just makes it harder to learn from them and for America to improve.
Last weekend’s killings in Buffalo remind us of the hard work yet to be done to honor the legacy of Ruth Whitfield, and the countless others whose lives were cut short by racial violence.