BUFFALO — President Biden delivered a defiant and at times emotional speech here on Tuesday, calling white supremacy “a poison” and urging all Americans to reject racist ideologies that some fear are gaining traction in the United States and that apparently prompted Saturday’s massacre in a Black neighborhood.
Invoking the racist “great replacement theory” that has been legitimized by some conservative commentators and GOP lawmakers and was allegedly embraced by the Buffalo suspect, Biden said that more leaders need to speak out against it and that tolerating it amounts to complicity. “I call on all Americans to reject the lie,” the president said. “And I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain and for profit.”
For Biden, the speech marked perhaps his most forceful condemnation of white supremacy since taking office, elevating an issue that he has in some ways put at the center of his presidency, even as some activists charge that he has not done enough to advance racial justice.
Biden, in his own telling, decided to launch his presidential campaign after seeing the hate and bile surrounding the Unite the Right rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017. He wrote an essay about it, spoke about it and used it as the north star of his presidential campaign. “This is not who we are,” he said, over and over again.
Now, more than a year into his presidency, a White man is accused of slaughtering 10 people in an openly racist act in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, raising perhaps the biggest hurdle yet to Biden’s assertion that such violence is foreign to the American character. Biden has named a historically diverse administration, starting with Vice President Harris, but many Black activists want him to do more, from speaking out more often against white supremacy to pushing harder for voting rights.
Biden’s trip on Tuesday to the stricken city in some ways amounted to an opening effort to respond to such exhortations. He met with grieving families, visited a makeshift memorial near the supermarket where the killing occurred, and consoled traumatized police officers.
In his remarks, Biden referred to the shooting an act of “simple and straightforward terrorism — terrorism, domestic terrorism, violence — inflicted in the service of hate and a vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group.”
He reiterated his call for Congress to enact gun-control measures, including an assault weapons ban. “Look, I’m not naive,” Biden said. “I know tragedy will come again. It cannot be forever overcome … but there are certain things we can do.”
The president also made an impassioned plea for Americans to reject racism and embrace the country’s diversity.
“The American experiment in democracy is in danger like it hasn’t been in my lifetime,” Biden said. “It’s in danger this hour. Hate and fear are being given too much oxygen by those who pretend to love America but who don’t understand America.”
Biden and his wife, Jill, visited the memorial shortly after arriving in Buffalo. The first lady placed a bouquet of white flowers at the memorial, while Biden crossed himself and both stood silently in front of a tree surrounded by tributes to the victims. They were joined by New York state leaders — including Gov. Kathy Hochul and Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who all are Democrats — as well as local officials.
Before Biden’s remarks, he and Jill Biden spent time with the family members, speaking to them individually, asking their names, ages, and relationship to those who were killed. Several said it felt strikingly informal for a meeting with the president.
“His empathy was almost contagious,” said Dee Davis, whose sister-in-law Celestine Chaney was killed during a trip to the store to pick up strawberries for shortcakes. “He talked to everyone, he put his hands on us. He came into us in the crowd to make sure he wanted us to know that he cared. I really felt like he was telling us, in a sense, change is going to come. I really felt that.”
The discussion didn’t delve too deeply into politics, several of the attendees said, though Biden did give the impression that he would push for federal action and that he would need their help.
“He did tell us, ‘We are going to try to do something, but it’s going to take time,’” Davis said. “Nothing happens overnight. But we’re not going to just sit back and do nothing.”
In his remarks, the president paid tribute to each of the 10 victims by name, pausing and becoming emotional as he described one man who had stopped by the supermarket to buy a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son — a son whose father had now disappeared forever.
Local residents generally spoke approvingly of Biden’s speech, but they also said they are looking for substantive action in response to the shooting and remain skeptical Biden’s visit will result in policy changes.
“When the day is over and Air Force One is gone, what’s changed?” Roscoe Henderson, a longtime police officer in Buffalo, said of Biden’s visit. “I think you’ll probably see something occur in New York state because our state leans to the left, but when it comes to Congress and affecting things everywhere, it’s going to be tough.”
Leslie Gardner was driving her great-granddaughter to school Tuesday morning when police cars came flying by as part of Biden’s visit. “I’m glad he’s here,” Gardner said. “I’m glad people are feeling this tragedy from the highest levels.”
But she added that she has little hope for a shift that would pump resources into disadvantaged Black communities. “I’ve really lost faith in the political process,” Gardner said.
Biden himself, speaking to reporters, conceded there was “not much on executive action” he could take regarding gun control, and said passing any limitation on firearms through Congress “is going to be very difficult. Very difficult. But I’m not going to give up trying.”
Biden also suggested that America needs to admit the depth of its racial problems. “Part of what the country has to do is look in the mirror and face the reality: We have a problem with domestic terror. It’s real,” Biden said. “And look, there’s a lot of people like this murderer who committed this act who are just deranged, who are susceptible, who are just lost and don’t know what to do — and they’re easily taken, they’re easily sucked in.”
He added: “We have to admit it. I don’t know why we don’t admit what the hell is going on.”
Meanwhile, details about the suspect’s history continued to emerge, suggesting that while there were previous indications he might commit a violent act, those signals were vague and indefinite.
Authorities have said since the shooting that the suspect was investigated in June 2021 after he made threatening comments in high school. According to the New York State Police, authorities responded to a school in Conklin, N.Y., after a 17-year-old student “made a threatening statement.” He was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, the agency said.
In a statement Tuesday, Michael A. Korchak, the Broome County district attorney, said the student made “disturbing comments regarding murder/suicide” during an online class.
Korchak said, however, that “no direct threat was made to the school or any student” and that guns were not mentioned. The 17-year-old, he added, was taken to a hospital by police, evaluated and released. The school district and state police “followed the procedures and protocols that were in place at that time,” Korchak said.
White House officials have spoken out about the racist motivation behind the Buffalo shooting and said they are studying legislation to prevent domestic terrorism. But to the dismay of some activists, they have largely refrained from calling out by name those who, by their own account, perpetuate rhetoric that can foment racist violence.
“The people who spread this filth know who they are, and they should be ashamed of themselves,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One on Tuesday. “I’m not going to give them or their noxious ideas they’re pushing the attention that they desperately want.”
She has declined to answer multiple questions about whether the president believes that Fox News host Tucker Carlson and some Republican members of Congress, for example, have been adding dangerous fuel to the racist “great replacement theory” allegedly embraced by the Buffalo suspect, as other Democrats have charged.
Civil rights leaders urged Biden — a man who served with the first Black president, chose the first Black vice president and arguably owes his position to Black voters — to continue issuing sweeping calls for racial justice.
“He has not dramatized it in a way that we need,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, who leads the National Action Network and is in frequent communication with the White House, said before Biden’s speech. “He needs to convene a cross-section of leaders from different communities that have been under attack, to show that his administration is going to be aggressive, not just empathetic.”
Some activists working with the White House have grown frustrated by the lack of legislative victories, particularly on voting rights and police reform, but they also want Biden to continue to deliver a passionate rebuttal to white nationalism. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, we can’t pass a bill,’” said Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League. “It’s not just about a bill. It’s about the soul of America, about attitudes, about rallying people.”
Morial said he recognized that Biden has spoken about race more openly than most presidents, and he added that his elevation of Black women to positions of prominence, including Supreme Court Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson, has been groundbreaking.
But that’s not enough, he added. “The president was focused on legislative victories. And rightfully so; the president is a policymaker,” Morial said. “However, if legislative victories are not possible, the president has other tools at his disposal. That is the bully pulpit and moral power of the presidency, and that’s what we’re encouraging Joe Biden to use.”
The political ground around racial justice appeared to be shifting in the summer of 2020, amid demonstrations after George Floyd and other Black men were killed at the hands of police and the presidential campaign headed into its final stretch. As protesters filled the streets and Confederate statues came down throughout the South, Biden made racial justice a centerpiece of his campaign.
But even with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, albeit narrowly, a police overhaul bill and a voting rights bill, both top priorities of Black leaders, have not gained momentum. Gun-control legislation, too, has failed to gain traction.
Republicans, meanwhile, have found electoral success in tapping into fears about how the history of racism is taught in public schools, saying White students should not be made to feel guilty because of their race — something Democrats and most educators say is not happening.
In Buffalo, community leaders are still trying to understand how such an act of terror occurred at their familiar local grocery store.
“Our community is seething because we were robbed,” said Ulysees O. Wingo Sr., a member of Buffalo’s city council. “One of the most helpless feelings is to be robbed. Many of us can’t even process what happened to us because we’re still trying to understand why someone would do what this person did.”
Jacob Bogage in Buffalo and Ashley Parker in Washington contributed to this report.