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Response to North Tonawanda arson sends message against racism

It’s not always easy to find signs of racial progress around here, which makes what happened in North Tonawanda all the more important.

No, not the fact that the city’s only black firefighter was burned out of his home two days after getting a threatening letter filled with racist invective. That, unfortunately, is not news.

What is news is the law enforcement and community response.

Rather than dismissing it as an “isolated incident,” police quickly made an arrest in the arson. And even before locking up the neighbor who set the fire, city leaders were loud and clear in voicing no tolerance for such bigotry.

They were backed by citizens who rallied around firefighter Kenneth Walker and his family, who lost everything. Cash, furniture and other items poured in via fundraisers in a display of solidarity that sent an unmistakable message about racism: Not here.

Even longtime bias fighters – while mindful of the challenges that remain – are encouraged by the response.

“We haven’t always seen as positive a response from every community, but I would have nothing but praise for the people of North Tonawanda,” said Scott Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal. “They realized what the right thing to do was, and they did it without hesitation.”

Buffalo NAACP President Frank Mesiah was equally laudatory of both the police and the community.

The question now is whether others have the capacity – and will – to learn from North Tonawanda’s example.

“What this does is send a message of how to respond to racism that does occur in other communities,” Mesiah said.

HOME still gets about 200 complaints of housing discrimination each year. And while source of income – welfare checks, etc. – now generate the most complaints, Gehl said that’s often a pretext for racial discrimination, which is barred by state and federal laws that don’t cover source of income.

“Discrimination happens for a number of reasons, but the reason that seems most salient is race. We just can’t get away from that,” he said.

The Walker family certainly couldn’t, even as the suspect denied sending the racist letter or that race was a factor in the arson. But even if he didn’t send the letter, his targeting of the department’s only black and anti-black sentiments detailed by his girlfriend speak for themselves, and just mean there may be two racists out to get Walker instead of one.

But the community spoke back. It’s the type of response that can set a tone and make even lesser forms of bigotry, such as racist jokes, unacceptable in time. That is how change occurs.

Granted, structural challenges in employment, policing and other areas remain. So does housing bias in all its forms, as manifested by HOME’s current lawsuit against the Town of Boston, or the opposition in many communities to “affordable” housing.

But such issues are far easier to tackle once officials and residents see their neighbors as fellow human beings worthy of respect and support rather than as threatening stereotypes.

It’s often said that change happens one person at a time. But it’s a lot quicker when it happens one community at a time. There are a lot of communities that should be on the phone with North Tonawanda to learn how to make change.


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