Each Friday, for more than two years, The Root has responded to emails and comments from our readers (and some people who obviously don’t read The Root).
Today, there will be just one email and one response.
To: Michael Harriot
I read your blog about the jaguar and found it to be angry and racially motivated. It lead me to read some of your other writngs at Neguswhoread and The Root. You opened my eyes to a lot of statistics that I don’t know about but I also think you left out a lot. Today I read your blog about the Varsity Blues parents and found that it contained a lot of truth. I also read that you have a background in economics.
Some brief background on me:
I don’t consider myself to be a racist and I rarely talk about race. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin until I went to college in Minnesota at St. Olaf. My high school had literally zero black people and my college had very few. Now I work at a high school that is very diverse. I teach a class that covers civics one semester and economics the other semester. Lately I have been reading more about racial topics to engage with my students which is how I found your writings, but I find that everyone who discusses it has their own perspective. Either they are very liberal or very conservative.
Being somewhere in the middle I’ve found that the rhetoric has grown increasingly anti-white, especially from the black community. Even people like Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter who are supposed to be racists rarely say the things about black people that people like yourself say about white people.
I think you are a great writer and you can be hilarious. But I found your blog on the children at Hoover high who used the n-word and a lot of others to be very mean-spirited. Your blog about the college entrance exam scandal makes it seem like the entire white race is conspiring against the entire black race. I think you should be careful to make a distinction between racist white people and the rest like most people know the difference between a good black person and a bad black person. Yet, you paint everyone the same.
What I want to know is what you think that will accomplish? Do you think it makes your readers have more hate for white people? I think this backlash is what created Trump and the rise in the alt-right groups. I would never say white people are blameless because I know about history, but I think the thing that is moving the country backward is the divisiveness. There is probably no one who has been around white people more than I have and I can tell you that most white people aren’t plotting to oppress black people or keep white people in power.
Mainly, what I’d like to hear from you is why you think ramping up the divide between cultures is necessary. I can feel the anger growing and it’s not from the white side. Its from the black side. I can even see it in my students and in my field. My black students won’t engage with their white classmates and they make jokes about white people that my white students would never say.
This is our country’s future and the divide is growing, partially because of people like you who are using racial identity as a stepping stone. Where does it end? Is two Americas what you want? Do you want payback for the things that happened before you were born? Do you want all white people gone?
It’s getting scary out here in the real America. And scared people do crazy things, which is why we have Trump.
What I’m asking is how you think this ends? What do you think happens when the majority is hated by the minority?
I think you’re one of the thoughtful ones out there. I know this is long winded but I’d really like to hear back from you and what you think the solution is.
First, I’d like to thank you for reaching out to me with your email. I’d also like to assuage your fears about me and people like me by reiterating one fact:
You said it Tyrus, I’m one of the good ones.
Ask anyone. I’ve always been one of the good ones. I come from a family of good ones.
My grandfather was one of the good ones. He worked full time in a paper factory and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. With his own hands, he built the house that still belongs to my family. He also owned a taxi business that caused him to be attacked by whites on more than one occasion. Even though I never met him, I’m sure that he was one of the good ones because I saw pictures of him in his army uniform when he fought for this country. Someone might even tell you that they once thought my family was rich was because when my grandfather was killed by a drunk, high, rich white kid, my family got the exorbitant sum of $64,000. That was a lot of money for a dead black man in the late ’60s.
But again, he was one of the good ones.
My mother was a good one, too. She was so good that she got down on her knees every day, working full-time, to clean white people’s toilets and chase after their kids even though she had an education. But she was a black woman in a small southern town with a Master’s degree. I went to school with the white children she looked after. I don’t know if they were aware that she was a good one because one Friday, in the mid-1980s, I saw the personal check they gave this black woman who was smarter and more educated than they were, after 40 hours of working for them. But I noticed it didn’t have “one of the good ones” in the memo section.
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The people in my hometown would tell you that I was a good guy, even after my neighborhood turned into a cocaine-infested den of iniquity in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They would probably speak with wonder as they tell you how I never sold crack. My mom would fill out college applications and financial aid forms for other kids in our neighborhood who were good ones. The dope boys in my neighborhood would tell you how they collected money on the block when I went to college. And again when my sisters went to college. They were good ones too.
I’d even wager that one of them, Bobby C, would tell you how one then-drug dealer paid him to drive me and my mother to my first day of college. How they came to pick me up during holidays and at the end of the semester because my college town didn’t have a bus station. That’s how good I was. My white high school friends would tell you how I made good grades as the only black kid in their classes even though I missed out on a lot of extracurricular activities because I just couldn’t afford to go.
People at my college would tell you how a good guy got care packages of government-issued peanut butter. My college friend Chuck would even tell you that I was such a good guy that he let me stay in his dorm room for an entire semester after I got kicked out of my dorm after I fought a white dude in an elevator for calling me the n-word. My mom would think I was a good guy for never informing her that I was technically homeless because I knew that she couldn’t afford to pay off-campus rent when she had four kids in college.
But Tyrus, sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I would have gone to an Ivy League college. I wonder what it would have been like if I had access to the “good colleges” versus something that was just far enough away from a shithole. Sometimes I wonder what a lot of black people would have become if they weren’t hindered by their circumstances. Sometimes I wish that being one of the good ones got me something.
I wish it came with a windbreaker I could slip on when I am pulled over by a police officer. I wish there was a recognizable “good ones” baseball cap that I can wear when I am in a dark parking lot with a white woman or a certification that I could put on my resume. I wish I had some kind of “good ones” badge that I could wear when people thought I got into graduate school because of affirmative action. I’d love to have a bumper sticker that I could put on my kids’ car when they leave the house.
Look, Tyrus, I do not consider myself to be oppressed. As a black man, I know I live in a world that values whiteness over everything. It is a circumstance, not a sentence. But even with my history of hard work, struggling to maintain my family’s history of excellence and being goddamn impeccably good, I know what I am to the rest of the world:
A black man.
And as a black man, there’s something that I want to tell you that you should know. It might make you feel better and it could possibly change your life:
Tyrus, nothing is going to happen to you.
Don’t worry, Tyrus, you are white. You get to live in a world that insulates you from everything. I can’t imagine how breathtakingly free it must be to live in on a planet that doesn’t keep its foot on your neck at all times. To never have even encountered blackness until you were a grown man. To always feel like you belong. To breathe free. How beautifully exhilarating the oxygen you inhale must taste.
So don’t fret, dear Tyrus. You are white. That alone means you are irreversibly, unequivocally considered to be a good one. If history is any example, you will never have to face the consequences of the actions for those who came before you. No matter how vilified you may feel, no matter how much hate you may notice, you should feel safe knowing that no white man in the entirety of this country’s past has ever had to pay a penalty for whiteness.
Not the slave traders. Not the fugitive slave hunters. Not the lynch mob noose-makers. Not the segregationists. Not the red-liners. Not the teenagers who spat on the kids integrating schools. Not the cross-burners. Not the school funders. Not the unequal sentencers. Not the gerrymanderers. Not the school-to-prison pipeline builders. Not the cocaine importers. Not the police shooters. Nary an upholder of white supremacy has ever had to bear the burden of the atrocities committed by other Caucasians.
And you are right, I do not have a solution. I never have. I never will.
As a black man, there is absolutely nothing I can do to lessen, reduce or eradicate racism. All my bellowing into the wind; all my statistics; all of this data means nothing. Racism, white supremacy and prejudice was created by and is perpetuated by white people. All the blogs in the multiverse won’t reverse the effects of bigotry until white people do something about it. And I’m not just talking about the n-word Trump voters. I mean all of it.
Tyrus, let me tell you a tragic story about a story about a story.
A little more than a year ago, 17-year-old Courtlin Arrington was killed in a school shooting. The alleged killer was a 17-year-old named Michael Barber. Arrington was an honor student planning to study nursing in college. She was definitely one of the good ones.
But that’s not the story.
To commemorate this tragedy and prevent this from happening again, earlier this week I attended a youth forum. The kids talked about their plans for the future, reducing violence in their neighborhoods and staying out of trouble. At the forum, there was a young guy in a youth group from one of the local housing project in one of the city’s most violent areas. He couldn’t have been any more than 10. Near the end of the program, he raised his hand. He explained how all of the stuff he heard was cool, but he noted one thing.
“All y’all can go home,” he said. “We gotta live here. What am I supposed to do when somebody tells me I gotta join a gang or they gon’ shoot me?”
I wanted to tell that kid that, as someone who grew up in that kind of environment, that the 10-year-old-mind can turn an off-handed comment by an adult into a perceived promissory note. He was too young to understand that a gun in his pocket wouldn’t stop someone from hurting him. He was too young to know it wasn’t a symbol of toughness. It was probably futile to explain how he got in that situation because of how redlining created poor black neighborhoods. He wouldn’t correlate his neighborhood to the education system, white flight, the criminal justice system, housing disparities, capitalism and living in a staunchly Republican state where white supremacy still determines his life.
So what do I hope to accomplish?
Well ... Here’s the answer to your $64,000 question.
Somewhere, right now, there is someone reading this. And that person might email this to someone. And that person might email it to another person. And that person might email it to someone who happens to be a white dude from white America who works at a very diverse high school teaching black kids.
And in one of his classes, there might be a black guy who’s just as smart as everyone else. And that teacher might wonder why he seems angry or makes white jokes. That teacher might wonder why that kid skips out on some of the educational activities. That teacher might wonder why he hangs out with the wrong crowd. That teacher might see that that kid has a great future but wonder what’s holding that kid back from reaching his potential.
And maybe, just maybe, that kid or his teacher will have heard some of the “divisive rhetoric” pin-balling around on the internet and know that the footprint imprinted on his neck ain’t his fault. It ain’t his mama’s fault. It ain’t even God’s fault. And no, Tyrus, it ain’t your fault either. It’s not even your parents’ fault.
But still ... y’all can go home.
As I was leaving that previously mentioned forum, I was sad. I began talking with my friend and frat brother who is a teacher at the school where Courtlin Arrington was killed. The high school is not in a bad neighborhood. Still, my friend told me that he knows kids who live in neighborhoods where they believe guns are their only protection so they bring them to school. In fact, Huffman is a magnet school for the best and brightest kids from around the city. But the weirdest thing about the school is that it has almost no white kids. White parents with academically inclined students will send their children to private schools or use other resources. But for a lot of black, academically inclined kids, it is literally the only path out of their circumstance.
Anyway, when we got to the subject of last year’s school shooting, my friend said that he knew all of the parties involved. He talked about how bright the victim was, which I had already read in all of the newspaper articles. When I asked him about the accused shooter, he said Barber was a standout football player who was said to be on his way to college on an athletic scholarship. By all accounts, the shooting was an accident. The story is that Barber bought the gun from a teammate and it accidentally fired, hitting and killing Arrington. Then, my friend just put his head down:
“Yeah, man ... I don’t know. It’s sad,” he said. And then with an audible sigh, he added:
“He was one of the good ones, too.”