Opinion | The legacy of racial segregation contributes to mass shootings today

By Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Staff Columnist

On May 14 in Buffalo, New York, an 18-year-old named Payton Gendron, armed with a semi-automatic weapon and a violent, racist ideology called the “Great Replacement” theory, opened fire at a Tops supermarket in Masten. Gendron methodically killed 10 people and injured three. Eleven of the thirteen people shot were Black.

In conversations surrounding the shooting, sources have discussed the two-front war of white supremacy and racial segregation, but these issues are not separate. They are one and the same, and the city of Pittsburgh harbors the same roots of systemic racism that prop up shootings like the one in Buffalo. 

As details on the Buffalo shooting unraveled, it became obvious that the attack was a hate crime. Prior to the massacre, Gendron had posted a racist manifesto online. The N-word was written on the gun he used in his attack. He had researched the local demographics to ensure that he could kill as many Black people as possible and drove over three hours to take advantage of the neighborhood’s concentration of Black people. The shooting was a strategic move, purposefully targeting a grocery store that lay in the center of Buffalo’s Black community. But how did Black residents become so concentrated in the region?

The city of Buffalo has a long history of racial inequality and segregation within its schools, housing developments and health systems. The community is victim to abysmal school funding, lack of affordable housing and poor health outcomes because of these forms of racism. 

If you are familiar with Pittsburgh’s history, then these details may sound alarmingly familiar. Pittsburgh’s history of racial inequality mirrors Buffalo’s. 

Before Gendron’s attack, the community of Masten was already experiencing compounding layers of racism. The city of Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. As the Black population began to increase after World War l, racist restrictive covenants barred Black residents from buying homes. 

Once these covenants were outlawed in 1948, banks denied Black people FHA mortgage loans through redlining. The construction of a highway split Buffalo in half in the 1950s, sequestering Black residents to the East side. This highway allowed for white people to continue to travel to the economic centers of the area. As the white population declined, the Black population in the city grew and residents of the East side slipped further and further into economic disrepair

To this day, nonwhite neighborhoods on the East side of Buffalo receive severe financial disadvantages. Children of color are overwhelmingly concentrated in the region’s school district with the highest poverty, offering them fewer educational opportunities. And displacement continues to be a growing concern.

Like Buffalo, Pittsburgh has experienced persistent racial segregation within its neighborhoods. The same aggressive redlining policies that divided Buffalo took place in Pittsburgh, concentrating Black residents within communities like Homewood, Northview Heights and Lincoln Lemington. This de facto racial zoning has only been reinforced by housing policies over the decades. In the same way the highway handicapped the economic mobility of the Buffalo community, the construction of Interstate 579 isolated the Black residents of the Hill District from downtown Pittsburgh.

Due to changing housing markets, present-day Black residents are pushed further into certain areas such as Penn Hills, McKeesport and Braddock. Like Buffalo, Pittsburgh’s Black residents fall “far below similar cities” in health, income, employment and educational outcomes. The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project states, “Even though Black people make up only 22% of Pittsburgh’s population, an overwhelming 76% of majority Black neighborhoods are high or extreme poverty.”

These issues converge and leave Black Pittsburgh residents at a disadvantage. Dr. Noble Maseru, a Pitt professor of public health and primary advisor for social justice and anti-racism initiatives for Pitt’s Schools of Health Sciences, conducted research on 63 communities within Allegheny county and found that, of the 63 neighborhoods, only 9 reach the average U.S. life expectancy. Maseru said this disparity is a direct result of the city of Pittsburgh excluding residents from necessary resources. 

“I would say that what folks have determined and identified unequivocally as the cause is structural racism, systemic racism. So that exclusion of providing appropriate resources of what we know as education and living wage, we know that that is intentional,” Maseru said.

These issues are not removed from the Buffalo shooting. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of the New Yorker stated that the racial inequality within the Buffalo region indicates that Black lives are treated as disposable. By not addressing the inequality within its own communities, the city of Buffalo reaffirmed the idea that Black neighborhoods are of less value, according to Taylor.

The same can be said for Pittsburgh. For years, Black residents have spoken out about the inequality that runs rampant within the city. Residents spoke out at a public hearing in May 2021 about the disparities in Black communities. One resident named Carl Redwood said, “Politicians have promised the city would be economically and racially diverse, but one mayor after another, one city council after another, has accelerated existing class and race-based inequities.”

Maseru said the racism that has caused white supremacist shootings cannot be separated from the systemic policies that intentionally exclude Black residents from necessary resources — they are one and the same. 

“White nationalism is not disconnected from systemic racism. Because we’re talking about systemic racism and structural racism,” Maseru said. “That means that America has that particular credo that we have identified as being flawed or inappropriate based on the tenets and ideals of the Constitution, which is structural racism.”

According to Maseru, in order to address the root of these racially motivated mass shootings, we have to address the structural racism that continues to keep Black communities at a disadvantage.

“That means that we have to ferret out and sort out those elements of structural racism. So you can call it white nationalism, or however you wish to identify it or label it. I think what is most important is determining if we have the structural and systemic racism which expresses itself as white nationalism, at some point we need to eliminate those elements there within these respective institutions,” Maseru said.

As the nation continues to grieve this week’s wave of mass shootings, it’s hard not to think of the shared histories of Buffalo and Pittsburgh and the ways Black residents have gone long ignored. Payton Gendron researched Masten for months. He used the community’s history of racial inequality and discrimination to pin the supermarket as “attack area 1.” He had carefully measured the communities of Buffalo to find the highest concentration of Black people. 

As racial attacks continue to become common in America, I fear for the Pittsburgh community. We are still grieving from the Tree of Life shooting, an attack driven by the same racist conspiracy that Payton Gendron believed in. The Tree of Life shooting showed that the dangers of white nationalism are here, in Pittsburgh, but the continued refusal to address racial segregation shows that Pittsburgh has nurtured the roots of white nationalism for much longer. 

If the city of Pittsburgh does nothing to address the injustice its Black residents continue to face, then it does nothing to prevent what happened in Buffalo from happening here. 

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].