The Buffalo massacre and wealth in America

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The racist massacre last month in Buffalo is spurring reflection in the industry about its particular connection to wealth — even as more mass shootings highlight the magnitude of America’s problem with gun violence.

Nine Black grocery shoppers and a security guard from the city’s East Side died on May 14 in an attack that the county’s sheriff called a “racially motivated hate crime” targeting a supermarket that’s one of the very few in the neighborhood. For some Black professionals working in and around wealth management, the horrific killing offered the latest example of the racial trauma often connected to basic economic acts and the continuing impact of white supremacy. The suspect allegedly traveled about 200 miles from his home to terrorize Black Americans at a hub in their own neighborhood.

The further terror of another shooting 10 days later at a school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers, as well as the political questions surrounding gun control, only add to the urgency of all of the issues underlying the violence.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder two years ago, many wealth management firms made corporate commitments to advance racial equity,” Akeiva Ellis, a financial education specialist with Ballentine Partners, said in an email. “For some companies, incidents like the mass shooting in East Buffalo highlight how short they’ve fallen and how short-lived those commitments were. Those who have remained steadfast in this work might experience a renewed vigor. Still, others may feel discouraged, questioning whether what they are doing is truly having an impact.”

To financial coach and columnist Rahkim Sabree, the author of a book called “Financially Irresponsible,” the attack came as no surprise because violence against Black Americans is “such a regular occurrence,” he said. Still, it carries “so many far-reaching implications,” including exacerbation of “financial trauma” like the thought that certain neighborhoods aren’t safe, Sabree said. Racism “continues to live and breathe and breed,” he said.

“If there are people who want to create change or if they want to create a solution, then do that. That’s my advice,” Sabree said. “Don’t look for Black people to solve the problem or to teach you how to solve the problem of hating Black people. It’s not for us to do that education. We just exist. We want to exist.”

At socially responsible investment manager Adasina Social Capital, the Buffalo massacre didn’t shock founder Rachel Robasciotti either, she said. In a blog post this week, Robasciotti placed the killing in the context of the Supreme Court’s ruling that’s expected to overturn Roe v. Wade in coming days and a new investment screen that Adasina has developed to identify and exclude the stock of companies that she says are making political contributions to candidates who oppose civil rights and voting legislation. 

“Because they’ve lost the future, all they have left is their violence,” Robasciotti said. “We’re not so separate as we think, and it’s our illusion of separation that will ultimately become our undoing. … We see the clear narrative in the middle of it, and we have this other narrative, which is connection, community and equity. It may sound like these are all different issues, but they’re not. It’s all one narrative.”

In the suburban Buffalo office of Level Financial Advisors, the company conducted a food drive to provide groceries for East Side residents who are no longer able to shop at Tops Friendly Market, according to co-owner Michael Heburn, who’s also the president of the Western New York Chapter of the Financial Planning Association. The targeting of Black residents reinforces the need for change in wealth management, said Heburn, who is white.

“There are not a lot of people of color in our industry, and we also think that there needs to be early education about financial wellness in high schools,” Heburn said. “We think the best way we can do that is by trying to advance our industry into these areas and see if we can try and recruit more young people to be a part of it.”

For many, the massacre underlined what experts refer to as a “grocery gap” in underserved communities. Financial advisors can make a direct impact, said Ellis of Ballantine.

“Corporations and our clients alike can meaningfully address these causes through impact investing, philanthropy and the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives. It’s an opportunity to look inward and question our motives, behaviors and actions,” she said. “Removing access to fresh food forces residents to spend more money on transportation to get food from a further location. Alternatively, some residents increase their reliance on fast-food restaurants, which typically don’t serve fresh, healthy items. This, in turn, has the potential to promote residents’ long-term health issues, which costs even more money to address. It’s a vicious cycle that can have a generational impact.”

In addition, Buffalo serves as a reminder that “closing the racial wealth gap and fighting white supremacy go hand in hand,” Ellis added. “This work requires more than knowledge and lip service. It requires us all to act.”

Her comments echo the pleas made to U.S. senators at a hearing this week by the son of 86-year-old Buffalo victim Ruth Whitfield, who had stopped by Tops on the way home from visiting her husband in a nursing home. In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee at the hearing on domestic terrorism, former Buffalo Fire Chief Garnell Whitfield asked the senators what they are doing in light of the attack.

“You were elected to protect us. I would ask every senator to imagine the faces of your mothers as you look at the face of my mother, Mrs. Ruth Whitfield,” Whitfield said. “Is there nothing we can do? Is there nothing that you personally are willing to do to stop the cancer of white supremacy and the domestic terrorism it inspires? If there is nothing, then, respectfully, senators, you should yield your positions of authority and influence to others that are willing to lead on this issue.”