The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: What Anyone Would Do

Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/FMG)

A few weeks ago, I went to a comedy show to see one of my best friends perform. As I walked in, I noticed a dude wearing a dashiki and a baseball cap with a silhouette of Africa and his white girlfriend whispering and staring at me. Since I figured out that my mother had been lying to me for the first 12 years of my life, telling me that I was “such a handsome boy,” I have never been under the impression that I belong in the category of “good-looking” so I figured they had confused me with one of my famous look-alikes, Ernie Hudson or Rickety Rocket.

After the show, the guy and the girl introduced themselves to me and the guy in the hat said he reads the clapback mailbag every week. The guy turned to his date and said: “Yo babe, he be writing his ass off,” which was the most genuine compliment I had ever received. I thanked him awkwardly and left.

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Later, my friend asked me why I get so awkward when I receive compliments, to which I responded: “Because I don’t believe they know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked.

I explained that I receive a ton of emails, tweets, DMs and actual mail telling me how stupid, racist and wrong I am.

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“If I believe the people who say I’m great,” I explained, “then I also have to believe the people who say I’m a race-baiting idiot.”

Yesterday, I was pumping gas and spotted a car at the next pump filled with white women. The only reason I noticed was because I found it curious that the car was blasting H-Town’s “Knocking Boots.” One of the women spotted me, her face brightened up and she said: “You’re the mail dude, right?” I had no idea what she was talking about so I did what anyone would do:

I shook my head and smiled.

She noticed my confusion, so she informed me that she met me with her boyfriend at the comedy club and she has started reading the Clapback Mailbag.

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Trying to recall what she was talking about I paused. Then I said something so stupid I knew I should try to suck it back as it was leaving my mouth.

“Oh, yeah, I said. “You were with the nigga in the hat!”

We stood there pumping gas with complimenting blank expressions in front of a carful of white women for a couple of seconds before she broke the awkward silence.

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“Well, I guess I’ll see you in the mailbag tomorrow!”

There’s really no point to this story, except I want to use this mailbag intro to publicly shout out the mailbag readers and say that when I write my next book, I sincerely hope the publisher will allow me to put this blurb on the back cover:

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The first letter comes from Anne Branigin’s exclusive about a report showing how people use police to gentrify neighborhoods.

From: Justin K.
To: Anne Branigin

Dear Anne:

Recently you wrote:

A new study released by anti-poverty advocacy group the Community Service Society, “New Neighbors and the Over-Policing of Communities of Color,” gives a clearer idea of the broader impact New York City’s white gentrifiers have on the communities of color they move into: Not only do those white residents make the communities less recognizable for longterm residents—they bring with them increased police presence and make their black and brown neighbors feel less safe.

I am an upper middle class male WASP from Fairfield County, CT. I would like to point out that if I were EVER to write that my 99% white home town was becoming “less recognizable” when black or brown people moved in, with the obvious inference that “black people are ruining the neighborhood”…I would be excoriated as a rank and ugly racist, and rightly so. Yet your article proudly supports the validity of the notion (supported by the study that you reference) that “white people are ruining the neighborhood” for black and brown people when they move to Harlem with their constant “noise complaints” and “desire for increased police presence” which make people of color feel “unsafe”.

How repulsive and hypocritical of you. Your writing seems to want to strike a note for justice for people of color, yet you are blind to your own racism, and deeply indulgent of your own prejudiced perspective.

Try this on for size: “New study shows that chicken wing bone trash and watermelon rinds are on the rise in Greenwhich, CT after new influx of black people, as town becomes less recognizable and longtime residents feel unsafe.”

Revolting. Even Fox News wouldn’t dare write that. Yet your article says the exact same thing.

Your journalism would move to a higher level if you evolved out of your “unwoke” state…

—Justin

Dear Justin:

First, I want to thank you for your letter. As I have pointed out in the mailbag many times, Anne Branigin is a racist. She insists on using peer-reviewed data, research and studies to point out actual facts.

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Anne would probably say that she’s reporting on an actual scientific study but I’m with you. She should ignore her journalistic ethics and the numbers that say police kill a disproportionate number of black people. She should forget about the data that shows calls to the police rise when white people move into a neighborhood even though crime doesn’t rise. But your out-of-hand repudiation of the substance of the piece underscores the actual need for journalists like Anne to highlight studies like these.

I often refer to gentrification as “micro-colonialism” and Anne’s article about the rise in noise complaints and 311 calls reminded me of the story of Ghost Dance.

In the late 1880s, the Lakota Indians had already been relocated onto a reservation in what we now call South Dakota. Not content with that, white people started stealing that land. They hunted the Lakota Bison into near extinction. They settled onto the Lakota’s property searching for gold. They basically were trying to gentrify a neighborhood after they had already forcefully segregated them.

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Meanwhile, one of the native Americans, Wovoka, believed that the only person who could save the Sioux and erase the white people was a messiah. Wovoka blended Christianity and the teaching of his ancestors into a holy dance that summoned the spirit of his ancestors. The dance began to take hold and the settlers began to worry about the “Ghost Dance” religion because it scared the fuck out of white people. So they did what any white person would do when they are scared.

They called the police.

When the reservation police showed up, they decided to take some of the chiefs into custody thinking it stop this crazy dancing that was scaring white people who were gentrifying the neighborhood they were trying to steal. The cops decided to arrest the chiefs for fucking dancing, thinking that it would stop this “Messiah craze.” Cops showed up and pulled a naked Indian chief out of his bed at gunpoint. When he resisted, police shot the unarmed chief in the chest and head, killing him.

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His name was Sitting Bull.

The natives knew there would be trouble, so they decided to head to another black neighborhood reservation when they were surrounded by officers who had come to settle this dancing bullshit once and for all. The cops told the 350 Indians to make camp by the creek.

The officers asked one agent familiar with the situation how they should handle the Indians. The agent, a white man named Valentine McGillicuddy, advised the officers that if there was one thing they shouldn’t do, they shouldn’t try to take the natives guns, writing: “No citizen in Nebraska or Dakota has been killed, molested or can show the scratch of a pin, and no property has been destroyed off the reservation.”

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So, of course, the cops woke up early the next morning and did what cops do:

They tried to take Sioux’s guns.

When the Indians resisted, the officers surrounded the Sioux and killed them all. Then they turned their “mountain guns” on the women and children still sleeping in the teepees and shot them, too.

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So Justin, your not-at-all racist comment about “chicken wing bone trash and watermelon rinds,” doesn’t quite compare to history a scientific study that shows what happens when white people show up and want to move in. White people don’t refer to their life-threatening behavior as “gentrification.” They call it “neighborhood improvement.” They call themselves “good citizens” just like the 20 soldiers who received the Medal of Honor called the Massacre at Wounded Knee a “battle”

Anne just did what anyone would do in her situation.

She told the truth.

But your letter raises a more important question that I will address as soon as you read this next message:

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From: Johnny Hanlon
To: Michael Harriot

You don’t know shit about whites, or anything for that matter. Your race has been responsible for 52% of all murders in the US over the past 30 years, despite being only 13% of the population. With the exception of DUI, African Americans commit 2.25-4.3x their actual demographic in all crimes (depending on the crime). Whites ALWAYS commit under our demographic (62%) when it comes to crime.

This is the reason whites, Asians, Jews, and anyone with a brain (that excludes most in your race) leave areas when blacks move in. It’s called protecting our future, you racist pos. Having lived in Charleston Farms (where Walter Scott was murdered by Officer Slager) I saw first hand how pathetic much of your low iq, violent race is. I stopped a rape and saw kids selling crack. You are your own problem and you are your own solution. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a multinational and multiracial organization, releases a yearly study that rates countries from worst to best based on Drugs and crime.

Last year, ALL of the top 116 worst countries by homicide and crime were black nations. Africa was 500 years or more behind the rest of the world, but let me hear that intelligence of yours. As you use Jewish social media and white tech to bitch about whites. Whites are the only race to abolish slavery. We, YOU, all bleed red….Like I said, you are your own solution, but keep fucking around and we’ll be your final solution.

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Oh, shit Justin, you were right!

Facts and figures can be racist! Johnny is obviously a racist and he just presented me with facts, figures and history. There’s only one problem:

I agree with him.

I also think black people kill too many black people. I believe black people commit too much crime. I don’t want to live around crack dealers either. And it’s not just me. I’m willing to bet there is at least one other black person on the planet who doesn’t like murder, rape and crack dealing in their community.

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I know I could point out that crime is a socioeconomic phenomenon and if you separate people out by income, location and race, you find that poor urban whites commit more violent crime per capita people than any other demographic. Poor suburban whites commit more crime than poor suburban blacks. The same is true for low-income whites in suburban and urban areas. I could argue the reason black people commit more crime is that there are so many more poor black people. But obviously, black people enjoy being poor.

The prison problem might have something to do with the fact that whites and blacks use drugs at the same rate but blacks are arrested more often. And the poverty in Africa might have something to do with the continent being much more advanced than white civilizations until white people showed up to steal all the natural resources and colonize the people, just like what happened to “savages” at Wounded Knee.

But Johnny and Justin, here’s the thing:

Why is it that black people can agree that there is too much crime but white people won’t even agree that racism exists? Even when you see the actual data you deny it. It doesn’t matter if Anne says is, I say it or an actual scientist says it, you continue to deny that it exists.

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When it comes to black on black crime, education, poverty, the criminal justice system and every other race-related disparity, I am willing to debate the causes and how it can be improved. But we can’t solve the problem because, instead of debating solutions, you did what any white person does when they don’t want to see reality:

You pretend it doesn’t exist.

I have a little bit more to say about your letter, but first, you should read the next correspondence:


This is actually a comment about the article on Angela Davis’ snub by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute:

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The comment did not offend me, however, I’d like to use it to point something out:

From: dennis.g

I started reading this dreading to see how Michael Harriot would excuse anti-semitic sentiment because it came from a civil rights icon.

Was much relieved to find that Ms. Davis had, in fact, not been accused of anti-semitic sentiment, but of anti-Israeli-apartheid sentiment.

Bravo, Ms. Davis. Shame on you Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Birmingham Jewish community…

From: whatamithinking

“Started reading this dreading to see how Michael Harriot would excuse anti-semitic sentiment because it came from a civil rights icon.”

The rest of your post sounds fair, but that opening sentence rubs me the wrong way. I’m assuming you’re not familiar with Michael’s work, and thus that misplaced anxiety. It’s unfair…

From: dennis.g

I have no problem with authentic black voices discussing race. There are very many that I listen to and respect. I have a problem with any member of one group who demeans members of another group based solely on that membership.

I realize Michael isn’t speaking to me when he writes, and I’ve been reading longenough to know that when people object to his style he just waves his hand and says, “yeah, yeah – not all white people – ok, happy now?” So I keep reading and try to constrain my anger to the injustices he’s describing and not the way he deals with those injustices.

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Dear Dennis:

For the record, I don’t actually wave my hand when I demean “members of another group based solely on that membership another group.”

In fact, I want to let you in on a secret.

Every time I use the word “Becky;” each time I collect all white people and deposit them into one basket for the sake of an argument; whenever I use the term “white people…”

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I know I’m wrong.

I can’t pretend that I understand all the nuances of racism while lumping all white people into the same category. Even worse, I’m not doing it to be provocative. I like that it bothers white people. I don’t want to tear down their barriers and make them understand what I’m trying to say. I’m not even trying to make a greater point.

Let me share something with you that makes me angry.

On Sunday, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Donald Trump a racist on 60 Minutes. In response, the White House said Ocasio-Cortez’s “sheer ignorance on the matter can’t cover the fact that President Trump supported and passed historic criminal justice reform.”

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When Hillary Clinton was asked what she has done for black people, to her credit, called out the “systematic racism” of the criminal justice system.

Can you see it? Do you see the hidden, insidious thing?

I want you to be honest with me.

I want you to name one time, a single time, that you have read, heard or seen a white person in the entirety of last year, speak specifically about race and black people — not an individual, but something specifically related to black people in general — and it did not have at least a negative-adjacent connotation.

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Well, black people see that shit. Not only do we recognize it, we accept it. You don’t have to worry about me being even offhandedly anti-semitic. There is nothing I can write about the Jewish community that wouldn’t be heavily scrutinized, edited or revised before it is published.

And while the things I say about white people may seem harsh, even when it is intentionally provocative, I am subconsciously aware of the reality that I must tread lightly, when talking about white people. Not just for your sake, but for my own. I am still a black man in America.

In fact, The Root is one of only a few places I know of where white people can even get a glimpse of an unfiltered black voice. That’s why I don’t try to sparate the whites and the not-so-whites. It is not because I think all white people are the same. It because I know it rubs you the wrong way. And I also know that the reason it rubs you the wrong way is that, unlike black people, you are not used to it. The reason black people think it is funny or insightful is not that it is bold.

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It is because I sound like you.

We know how blackness is viewed by white people. The two letters above this one don’t bother me as much as the subconscious threat of how black people are subliminally minimized to a condensed negative caricature. And it is a threat. It makes people think we are up to something when we are sitting in Starbucks. It makes people call the police when we just want to dance. It makes the police fear for their lives.

And it makes me angry.

The anger doesn’t come from being disparaged. It comes from the knowing.  I know that it can result in the death of my son or daughter. I know it colors how I am seen when I walk into a convenience store late at night. Even worse, I know that the reason this exists is that no one even thinks about what it means. Editors don’t see it. Well-meaning readers in the comments section don’t think about it. But white people, all white people, absorb it through the insidious cultural osmosis we that I refer to as white supremacy.

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And so I do what anyone like me would do when he’s angry and can’t do anything but accept the shit.

I write my ass off.

Ask that nigga in the hat

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