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December 01, 2005

Racism in Buffalo, New York

[Ed. note: My brother Craig left this in comments to my Pinole post, and it was so appropriate and incisive that I decided to promote it to its own post.]

Buffalo has changed to some degree. It's not quite as segregated as before, but only because as whites moved out of the city it opened up neighborhoods to others. The county is still something like the fourth most segregated in the country.

Every time I (or anyone else) on some of the otherwise liberal Buffalo discussion groups has tried to bring up the fact that racism is a huge problem there, we are shouted down with outrage.

A Buffalo elected official was arguing against letting Katrina victims have some of the tens of thousands of vacant city-owned houses because they were "the wrong element" and not the kind of people we want to attract, etc. He was repeating some of the worst Fox News stories about armed gangs of rapists, etc. that turned out to be untrue. He constantly referred to potentially relocated New Orleans citizens as "immigrants" and compared them to waves of people earlier came here from outside the US... saying they wouldn't assimilate, etc.

When I pointed out that they would not be foreign immigrants (though I would be just fine with immigrants coming to Buffalo) but merely fellow Americans, he snarkily corrected himself but maintained that that difference was only technical in regard to "these people."

This guy is a Democrat. One of the supposedly more liberal of Buffalo's elected officials.

I was trying to be diplomatic and persuade him and the others to see things differently - one woman just plain called him out as a racist. She was probably banned from the list. The outrage was incredible.

And that's the thing - they deny that there's racism in Buffalo when in fact the area reeks of racism. Buffalo is defined more by its racism than by just about anything else.

Snow, factory closings, Albany politics - none of these have had as dramatic an impact on the city as the racism. Its borders, the structure of city government, the housing stock, traffic patterns, where preservation and cultural groups are active - all of this is affected more by race than anything else. But nobody, nobody will ever suggest that race is a problem.

Being the fourth most segregated county is some kind of fluke. A coincidence not worth mentioning. I myself was shouted down for bringing it up.

I think the bottom like is that people equate the words racism and racist with active hate - and they don't feel that they hate anyone. They're just sitting in their houses in Orchard Park watching Everybody Loves Raymond, they don't hate anybody! Sure, they won't venture into the east side of Buffalo, but that's only because... well, you know... but they don't HATE anyone, only bad people hate people!

I remember years ago CNN's Bernard Shaw puffing up, sputtering and turning bright red when someone suggested that reporters might have a bias. He practically screamed that it wasn't true. Forget for a moment the "liberal bias" lie that the last several years have proven untrue... at the time I realized that Shaw's reaction showed that he did have a bias. The fact of the matter is, every reporter has a bias and it's only through understanding their own bias and taking it into account that they can report objectively. If they deny their bias as Shaw did, they can't hope to be objective.

Same thing with racism. Everyone has prejudices. If you deny you have them then you can't help but have them influence your actions.

That's Buffalo's situation. There's plenty of hatred and overt racism, but mostly its basically decent people who simply refuse to even consider the problem.

Fourth most segregated county, but no racists there, and don't you dare bring up the subject.

Sadly, I don't see things changing.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 1, 2005 08:24 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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well shoot, you coulda fixed my typos while you were at it!

Posted by: craig at December 1, 2005 11:54 AM
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I grew up on Buffalo's East Side when it was changing from all-white to mixed to mostly black. My parents, give them credit, only moved out when they retired and moved to an apartment. In my parents' formative years, Germans and Poles lived in separate neighborhoods, or even on opposite sides of the street - don't you dare walk on our side! In my youth, Italian and Polish pairings were still considered mixed marriages. God forbid marrying a Protestant. Jews were unthinkable. The history of racism in Buffalo is long and deep. It's so sorry that it hasn't changed much.

Posted by: Buffalo Gal at December 1, 2005 06:19 PM
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In the 1980s, Mark Goldman wrote a couple of good histories of Buffalo, High Hopes up to the 60s and City on a Lake going forward, that cover a lot of where this comes from. The second volume is mostly about the school desegregation process, thought very progressive at the time, but not nearly good enough to overcome civic decline.

Yes -- I grew up there. And like most who could, departed at 18 for broader horizons.

Posted by: janinsanfran at December 1, 2005 08:46 PM
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As one who grew up in upstate New York and has since lived in the Midwest and the South, I think the South is now the least racist part of the country.

The Civil Rights movement changed a lot of peoples' minds in the South -- not everyone of course, but by and large tthe white Southerners had to face the issue and eventually decided that the old system was wrong.

In other parts of the country, white people never had to deal with their own racism.

Posted by: Oberon at December 3, 2005 04:44 PM
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It seems to me that the current "hotspot" for racism is the West. There is a palpable tone of it in the discussions concerning the Hispanic community, and it's quite noticeable when you visit from somewhere else in the country.

Posted by: PSoTD at December 5, 2005 07:41 AM
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