'It was never just about Floyd': Protests reflect anger over inequality, neglect

'It was never just about Floyd': Protests reflect anger over inequality, neglect

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Protesters in Niagara Square. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Four weeks ago, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C., released a national report with stunning local conclusions: In the past 40 years, every black neighborhood in Buffalo has stayed poor or grown poorer.

The findings drew little attention at the time, in the midst of both the Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic collapse. But in the month since, many of the neighborhoods identified as “persistently poor” in the report have exploded into protests – and observers in Buffalo’s black community say that’s no coincidence.

While sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the protests also express a deep, abiding frustration that – in realms ranging from education and jobs to housing conditions – too little has improved in the five decades since the city was last gripped by large-scale racial unrest in 1967.

On many measures, including neighborhood poverty, conditions have worsened.

“There’s been some progress in the City of Buffalo,” said George K. Arthur, a former Common Council president. “But … there were promises and commitments made in the past that we haven’t kept.”

Now 87, Arthur was first elected to Common Council just three years after the city’s 1967 riots, a four-day period of unrest that in some ways parallels the current turmoil. Sparked by the disproportionate police response to a small fight in the now-demolished Lakeview projects, the demonstrations – many violent – grew to encompass larger concerns about substandard housing, public school education, youth unemployment and neighborhood investment.

In their aftermath, city officials, protest organizers and black community leaders, including Arthur, laid plans to address those larger concerns with new programs such as a large-scale youth employment project. Efforts were made, as one group of researchers put it at the time, to remedy years of “idle promises.”

But across a wide range of indicators, conditions in Buffalo’s black neighborhoods have stagnated, if not worsened, since 1967. That trend persisted into the past decade, when the region as a whole saw some modest expansion.

The black poverty rate in Buffalo now sits at 33.4%, compared with 28% in 1970, according to research by Henry Louis Taylor Jr., the director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo. The gap between the median income in black households, versus the income in Buffalo households overall, ballooned from 21.4% in 1970 to 35% in 1980, and sits at 32% now.

Of Buffalo’s 26 majority-black census tracts, 18 have higher poverty rates now than they did in 1980, according to data analyzed in May by the Economic Innovation Group. Of the remaining eight, all still meet the Census Bureau's definition of a “poverty area,” meaning at least 20% of residents are poor.

“Buffalo is one of only 10 cities in the country that has no 'turnaround’ neighborhoods,” said August Benzow, a research analyst who worked on the report. “In that way it’s worse than even some other cities in the Rust Belt.”

Median home values in the city’s neighborhoods of color fell to just $52,000 in 2013, from more than $62,000 in 1990, according to a 2018 report by Buffalo’s Racial Equity Roundtable, a consortium of local leaders. The median home value in a predominantly white neighborhood was, at the time, almost $138,000. A recent Buffalo News analysis of city assessment data suggests that gap may have since widened further.

In education, the Buffalo Public Schools – once hailed in a front page New York Times story as a model of successful integration – have largely resegregated again. And while far more black students now graduate high school than did a generation ago, students of color are today far more likely to attend underperforming schools and to score lower on standardized tests, according to the Equity Roundtable’s analysis.

"The schools are worse now than they were in '67," said Arthur, who was involved in both the Equity Roundtable and a landmark 1972 case to desegregate the Buffalo Public Schools.

Experts predict the economic fallout of the pandemic will exacerbate many of these gaps, just as the disease itself exposed dramatic, pre-existing health gaps between the region's white and black residents. For months now, UB's Taylor said, Buffalo’s black community has watched Covid-19 batter their relatives and friends.

Buffalo’s black students are also far less likely to have computers or internet access at home for remote learning, a disparity that educators fear could set some back.

And while the black unemployment rate in Buffalo has fallen since the Great Recession – hovering around 12.4%, from 16% in 1960 and 21% just 20 years later – national statistics released June 5 by the Department of Labor show that pandemic layoffs and closures disproportionately hit people of color.

“Conditions are not getting better. They’re worsening,” Taylor said.

“All you have to do is drive or walk through these neighborhoods,” he added. “I take (students) on tours of them. I want them to know: 'This is what it looks like in a neighborhood where the sidewalks are dangerous to walk on. That’s the lived reality for many people.' ”

Those people include Cameron Cahill, a 21-year-old college student who, for the past seven years, has lived a few blocks east of Erie County Medical Center. It’s a “solid and wholesome” community, he said – but marred by vacant lots, empty buildings, potholed streets and other signs of disinvestment and municipal neglect.

East Side residents are confronted by that inequity every time they cross Main Street, added Cahill, who made that drive last Saturday to protest in Niagara Square.

“Those who keep saying it’s not about Floyd anymore fail to realize it was never just about Floyd,” he said. “A lot of black communities nationwide get the short end of the stick, due to racial (discrimination) embedded into their systems. The black and minority community of Buffalo is no different.”

It’s not just that the East Side has seen too little investment, said Cynthia Clarkspellman, a fellow Niagara Square protester who lives in Schiller Park. The area has “gotten worse in a lot of ways” over the past 20 years, Clarkspellman said, losing grocery stores, pharmacies and retail shops. She has been glad to see an influx of immigrants in the area. But when white people get “angry at black folks for the riots,” she added, they show “they have no idea” what being black is like in America.

“Since the civil rights movement, black folks have had to put up with unequal housing, poorer education and a mainstream culture that wants to consume them but doesn't love or value them,” she wrote on Twitter.

On May 31, another Buffalo resident, who asked The News to identify him only as Justin, echoed her observations.

“Black people are not just protesting the murder of black men by police,” he wrote. “We are protesting all of the injustices we face every day. We are protesting the poverty rate in our area due to it being harder for black people to get a job. We are protesting the fact that while it’s harder for black people to get a job, we make up most of the essential workforce that still have to work during a pandemic.

“You’re right it’s no longer just about George Floyd. It’s about every ... thing that has gotten us to this point and that ... must change.”

Taylor, of the Center for Urban Studies, said he does see hope for structural change this time, of the type that Buffalo’s black community didn’t get in 1967. A broad, diverse coalition of activists has mobilized around Buffalo’s inequities, he said: not only in the criminal justice system, but in neighborhood development, housing and education.

He points to organizations such as the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, which has worked to give residents lasting control of the neighborhood’s direction, as well as the “radical, millennial” protesters who have made clear – as one popular slogan puts it – that there will be "no peace" without justice.

“Right now, the big thing here in Buffalo is that there is a budding movement that is laying the foundation for some real battles ahead,” Taylor said. “Now, people are determined not to go back.”

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