UB faculty reflect on racism, gun control following mass shooting in Buffalo


Published June 15, 2022


In the aftermath of the numerous mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the past month, including the racially motivated attack on May 14 at the Tops market on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, many people in Buffalo and across the nation are wondering: How did we get here? And where do we go from here?

In reflection on the tragic mass shooting that occurred in Buffalo a month ago, several UB faculty members were asked to help explain the history and impact of racism in Buffalo, the legacy of gun culture in the U.S., and what educators at UB and beyond can do to confront hate.

Here are their thoughts.

The mass shooting in Buffalo is attracting scrutiny of racism and white supremacy. The nation, as well as the city of Buffalo, have long grappled with these issues. How has racism impacted the lives of Buffalo’s Black communities?

Timothy F. Murphy MD; Department of Medicine.

“Racism is a critical driver of racial health inequities in Buffalo. A Black person in Buffalo dies 10 to 12 years younger than a white person in Buffalo. These disturbing inequities are a direct result of systemic structural racism.

“Racism that is part of our history and our systems accounts for the adverse social determinants of health that cause these adverse health outcomes. They include poverty, underdeveloped neighborhoods, failing schools, high unemployment, low property values, poor access to public transportation, absence of grocery stores, lead contamination in homes and poor access to health care, among others.

“The single most important cause of health inequities in Buffalo is systemic racism. The racist act on our community by a white supremacist must strengthen our resolve to work together as community-university partners for fundamental change in our society.”

Timothy Murphy, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and director, UB Community Health Equity Research Institute

How has racism impacted the lives of Buffalo’s Black communities?

Henry Louis Taylor Jr.

“To me, it’s important to remember this history because it helps us understand how we are to respond to this attack. I keep making the connection that this attack can’t be seen as an isolated event; that it’s very much associated with the anti-critical race theory movement, and to the efforts across the country to suppress Black voters, and to the conditions of life under which our people live. We are fighting to build a society based on racial, social and economic justice.

“The places that we live and the conditions under which we live suggest that Black lives do not matter, and it reflects another kind of violence against our people. This is a subtle, insidious and quiet violence that’s killing people.”

Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning, School of Architecture and Planning; associate director, UB Community Health Equity Research Institute; director, UB Center for Urban Studies; and lead author, “The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present.”

Despite the U.S. having one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world, many people in the country are opposed to enacting stricter gun control measures. Why is gun control such a controversial topic in the U.S.?

Carole Emberton.

“First, I think the national frontiersman mythology that made the American gunslinger iconic plays an important part. You see this repeated today when people say we need more ‘good guys with guns’ to stop mass shootings. But, of course, the historical reality is that the archetypal gunslinger used his weapons against Indigenous people and racial ‘others’ in the various campaigns to subdue and control those populations. So, white supremacy is an integral part of this frontier mythology.

“As I wrote about in my first book, “Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War,” white southerners regained political control in the post-Civil War South, and thereby reasserted their dominance over freedpeople through armed violence and intimidation, and by creating a narrative about how white people were in danger from freed slaves and thus needed to arm themselves. At the heart of American gun culture is white anger, fear and resentment.” 

Carole Emberton, associate professor of history, College of Arts and Sciences

Prior to his attack in Buffalo, the gunman shared racist conspiracies online that contained ideas promoted within the political mainstream. Is white supremacy becoming normalized again? Where and when else have we seen this shift in history?

Despina Stratigakos.

“Speaking from the perspective of a Third Reich historian, this shift doesn’t just happen. It takes tremendous labor, resources and infrastructure to normalize white supremacy.

“In my books, I’ve explored the ways in which Hitler’s regime attempted to construct a whole alternate reality to sustain and reproduce those beliefs. They intended to embed this ideology so thoroughly into everyday life that it became imperceptible. To achieve this, they took over and corrupted the tools of democracy, including the judiciary, the media and academia.

“The Nazis understood the importance of communications in spreading their ideologies, and closely controlled newspapers and radio programs. In occupied Norway, they confiscated people’s radios to prevent them from listening to British news, which offered a fact-based version of reality. In the United States today, people self-censor information to create their own reality bubbles, encouraged by media outlets and politicians who claim that facts are false and dangerous.

“At the same time, we can’t just blame the internet or right-wing politicians and pundits for the mainstreaming of white supremacy. We never fully dismantled the infrastructure that embedded racism into the democratic institutions of this country. And that is why the work of analyzing and dismantling racist systems is so fundamental to progress, and why universities, in particular, must resist efforts to suppress scholarship and teaching that expose uncomfortable truths.”

Despina Stratigakos, vice provost for inclusive excellence and professor of architecture, School of Architecture and Planning

What role can educators and researchers play in challenging racism?

LaGarret King.

“There are several things that educators can do in challenging racism and becoming more racially literate. First, educators need to take a self-assessment of how their identity was formed. For most, ideas and our lived experiences around race, along with geography, class, gender, sexuality and more has influenced how we perceive ourselves and others. This may mean leaving racial comfort zones and being open to experiencing others’ lives.

“Second, educators need to believe that institutional and structural racism exist in this world. This does not mean being a blind advocate but to begin and continue to unlearn histories that ignore the history of race. Educators must be proactive for self-learning and demand from their school districts professional development learning plans that help them learn about the history, sociology, psychology and economics of racism and how it continues to influence life chances. Learning content is not enough; educators need to also know how to effectively use that content knowledge with appropriate instruction.

“Third, educators should listen and learn from communities and students of color who have experienced racism. This should be a judge-free zone where the objective is to listen to what these persons are conveying and not be offensive. Additionally, educators need to understand that different people have different experiences, even those who may have limited experiences around race and racism. This does not negate that racism exists; Black and other non-white people do not have monolithic experiences.   

“Fourth, educators need to be active in helping eradicate racism. To be clear, an educator can do just so much, but ignoring the issue altogether is not the answer. For educators, it is about implementing culturally relevant and anti-racist curricular and instructional practices in the classrooms.

“Last, it is OK not to know or be an expert in the subject. Demand help from your administrators, school districts, unions, communities and other spaces of learning.” 

LaGarrett King, director, UB Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, and associate professor of social studies education, Graduate School of Education