Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/GMG)

Today’s mailbag is dedicated to the brave white men and women who sacrificed their time to send emails, texts, DMs and comments to The Root. Without you, we wouldn’t be here.

Well ... we’d probably still be here, but at whom would we clap back?

We also honor the mailbag readers who served. It must be hard reading variations of “you suck” every week. But you routinely rush into the fog of cyberwar and continue to consume this bullshit. This series simultaneously gives me the most joy and the most consternation. I love it and I hate it.


So here’s to the Clapback Mailbag veterans. The ones who call out nonsense, and the ones who insist that white gravy is good. Here’s to the ones who put their sanity on the line by going into the grays. Here’s to the people who grew up around black people. Here’s to the people who insist they are “not like that” when they are, in fact, exactly like that. Here’s to the ones who are “with her” and the Bernie Bros. Here’s to white people ...

But “not all white people.”

Speaking of which ...

Let’s start by getting the “not all white people” item of the week out of the way first. Sylvia was upset about this article on racism and the midterm elections:


From: Sylvia
To: Michael Harriot
Subject: Racism works

Bernie Sanders just dismantled all your nonsense by explaining that most white people aren’t racist. Some of them just don’t want to vote for a black person because of personal reasons.

You want to rethink your spiel?

I already know the answer.

Your right, your particular brand of racism definitely works. Playing the race card is how you get paid.

Keep believing you’re the victim and white people are the enemy and you will keep seeing the division. People like me are tired of your bs.


Dear Sylvia:

The first thing I’d like to do is say: “How?”

“You’re” and “your” are literally separated by one word in your letter! How could you think they mean the same thing? How, Sylvia? How?


Secondly, I’d like to point out that when Bernie said, “there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” he thought he was saying some really meaningful, introspective shit.

It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

During my studies in wypipology, I learned a scientific word that aptly describes this phenomenon. It is an old, ontological term used to define people like the ones Bernie mentioned. He was using a euphemism, but there is a technical word for anyone who is “uncomfortable” with black leadership:

A racist.

I honestly believe much of the vitriol Obama faced was because of what Bernie Sanders described. I also think it is what led to the rise of Trump. But as I often do, I point out that racism has nothing to do with hate. Whether those anti-black, pro-Trump whites voted against black candidates because of hatred or because they were “uncomfortable,” the result was the same. But I understand Bernie’s point.


Most white people have never had a black supervisor or boss, and it probably made them feel the same way I felt that time when a white girl kept asking me to dance. Technically, I could have danced the same way I always have, because there was nothing wrong with it. But I eventually told her that my religious beliefs didn’t allow me to dance with white people, to which she replied (and I swear to Rihanna this is true):

“It’s OK, I’m Italian.”

I still don’t know what that means, but it made me uncomfortable. Let me get to the third and most important question:

Which one of you motherfuckers stole my shit?

If, as you and many others assert, that black people like myself are always “playing the race card,” where the fuck is our cash and prizes?


I’ve played Spades, Bid Whist, Tonk, Poker, Go Fish, Solitaire, and even Uno. When I play cards, whether it is points, casino chips or money, someone usually wins something and I think black people are ready to cash in. Given how long we’ve been accused of playing “the race card,” the “victim,” or using reverse racism to our advantage, I would assume playing the race card is a lucrative industry and we have been ignoring our winnings.

So where’s our shit?

Is there a vault somewhere with a lifetime supply of black privilege that someone has been stockpiling for us every time we point out white privilege? Did we get money for pointing out the wage and wealth gap between similarly educated and experienced black and white workers? I’ll take mine in hundred-dollar bills. It would be hard to carry all those 20s, and I don’t trust white people’s checks. So, cash, please.


What do I win for mentioning the disparities in drug prison sentences, arrests, education and employment opportunities? Every time I write about those issues, someone accuses me of creating “clickbait” or “playing the victim.” The Root doesn’t reward us for page views, so I figured there must be some other compensation package. If I’m “playing the victim,” I must have won at least a few games, right?

So where’s our shit?

Are Jemel Roberson’s Second Amendment rights in a safe somewhere? He was literally a good guy with a gun stopping a bad guy with a gun. Did the NRA give him a cash refund? How about Philando Castile? Did the billion-dollar jump start that slavery gave America slip between my couch cushions? How about the hundreds of millions of dollars in property value stolen from black landowners by government-sanctioned redlining?


Wait ... I figured it out. It all makes sense now.

So that’s why white people feel uncomfortable voting for black people.

That’s why Bernie says it’s not racism. That’s why you called it “nonsense” and playing the victim. I finally realized what white privilege is.


It’s knowing that you don’t ever have to worry about running out of opportunities and resources as long as you exist in America. It’s living in a guarded castle with a treasure chest buried in your backyard. You can experiment with cocaine and Molly and not worry about the consequences following you for the rest of your life. You can be a C-student and graduate knowing that this country will clear out a space for your mediocrity. You can point a gun at a cop and be captured alive.

You can exist.

And the only thing that can disturb your privileged place on the planet is the thought that someone whose skin is a different color than yours might one day unveil the uncomfortable truth of your existence—that you are a fraud. That everything—the Greek warriors, the Roman Empire, Napoleon’s conquests, the English colonialists, America’s manifest destiny, this nation’s mythical “greatness”—everything whiteness is and everything whiteness will ever be is based on the entitlement bestowed upon it by one continuous act:

Taking people’s shit.

These comments are from an article about California using prison labor to fight wildfires.


There were a lot of comments about why using prisoners who, admittedly, volunteered, isn’t the same as “slavery.” I chose the two strongest arguments:

From: NoTimeLikeThePresent

“They don’t receive “proper remuneration”: While fighting fires, inmates earn an average of $2 per day and a whopping total of $1 per hour.”

Per the CA Legislative Analysts Office:

It costs an average of about $71,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison in California (for comparison, the average Californian earns only $61,320 a year and the average CA firefighter makes $91,000 base). Over three-quarters of these costs are for security and inmate health care. Since 2010-11, the average annual cost has increased by about $22,000, or about 45 percent. This includes an increase of $7,900 for security and $7,200 for inmate health care.

No matter the type of conviction, inmates are fed, clothed, sheltered, and taken care of for the duration of their sentence without paying taxes or any *financial* cost to them. The cost of losing time/their lives outside of prison is not an easy thing to quantify, admittedly.

However, is prison not meant to be a way to repay a debt to society after being convicted of a crime? Is the state not simply recuperating their own costs by having prisoners do something productive?

From: Banana

Jezebel did a story a while back on the women in this program and honestly it’s the best prison program I’ve ever heard of. First of all they really do volunteer for the program, as in the program is regularly turning away people who want to be in it because there aren’t enough spots. Second, if someone is convicted of a crime it doesn’t serve any purpose for them to go sit in a corner for a while, they should be making it up to the community and there’s no better way to do that than literally saving homes and lives. This is a much better use of their time than working for private corporations. The only problem is that they aren’t eligible to be firefighters upon release which would take a very small law to fix. The people who participate in it are at risk, but they know that when they volunteer, they were all saying that it gave them a sense of purpose, they got to feel like part of a team and they got to be outside in nature. It was an incentive to keep on the straight and narrow while incarcerated because you couldn’t be a firefighter if you had a disciplinary record.


NoTime and Banana:

I admit that this is a nuanced issue. NoTime, I actually never thought of it from that perspective. But let’s set aside the actual, factual disparity in arrests, sentences and incarceration until later. For now, I’m going to look at it from your perspective.

Using your figures, NoTime, the difference between the average California firefighter’s yearly salary ($91,000) and what it costs to house the average prisoner ($71,000) is $20,000 (because prison firefighters are healthier, minimum security inmates, I would argue that they cost the state less than $71,000 per year, but because the California Department of Corrections says the program saves about $100 million a year, let’s use your numbers.)


CNBC says there are 3,400 total inmates in the program, so by using prison labor and not firefighters, the state saves $68 million dollars every year, which is about $1.78 per person, according to California’s latest population statistics (38,654,206). If we didn’t include children (9.14 million) or the poor (7.5 million), that payment rises to $3.08 per person per year. The $68 million California saves on prison firefighters is also one-half of one percent of the state’s corrections budget.

Here’s my point:

We know that blacks are 5.9 percent of California’s residents but comprise 29 percent of the state’s prison population. The Sentencing Project says that California incarcerates 8.8 black people for every white person it imprisons.


Now we can quibble about the morality and usefulness of the program, but the fact is, the prisoners being used for this program that fits every definition of slavery draws from a disproportionately black pool. The reason I broke down the math of the program is that, honestly, NoTime’s financial explanation was the most reasonable excuse for the program’s continuation, which brings me to my ultimate point.

What the fuck?

Did you just explain slavery to me by pointing out that it is cheaper than paying people? That might be the most revealing thing I’ve ever read. It’s not like I’m on the fire’s side. I don’t hate trees. I don’t want people’s homes to burn down. I am on the side of humanity.


And given the choice between slavery, humanity and shelling out $5 a year, there are people who willingly choose inhumanity.

And that dear reader is why the world remains a fucked-up place.

As for the Jezebel article that talked about how much the inmates loved it, it reminded me of this:

And finally, this letter refers to an article by staff writer Anne Branigin about a racist graffiti campaign:

From Samuel
To: Anne Branigin
Subject: Reading, MA graffiti story

Hi Anne,

I’m writing as a graduate of Reading Memorial High School and avid reader of The Root. Hearing about this series of events has felt disheartening, but also completely unsurprising. I think the demographics and privilege of Reading make it a hotbed for the sort of ironic-but-not-ironic racism and prejudice that feels so commonplace among young people (mostly young men) and in various corners of the internet. I certainly felt the transgressive appeal of using slurs and making bigoted remarks when I was younger; it’s too easy to develop an empathy gap when you rarely see people different from yourself. Plus, I thought, real racism was for people from the South.

I am encouraged to see references to a response by students and community members in your article. My parents (who still live in Reading) told me last week that they were attending a vigil, but I wasn’t sure if that would be it in terms of pushback. I hope that a strong and continued show of solidarity can help make a change in the town’s perspective on bigotry. Reading is the perfect place to site idly by and “not see color” - maybe this will be a wake-up call to those who don’t realize that white silence is violence.

Thanks for your coverage on this topic and many others -



I often explain to people that the idea of racism being worse in the South is like saying chicken pox is worse than cancer because the bumps stand out more and are easier to recognize. But I won’t get into that right now.


I wanted to thank you for your letter because your revelation that many white people don’t see color not only explains why this racist graffiti keeps returning, but it also serves as my explanation for a lot of things. I’m pretty sure that pretending something doesn’t exist actually erases that thing from reality.

As such, I want to reveal a short list of things I don’t see:

  1. I don’t exercise or eat healthy because I don’t see weight.
  2. Whenever waiters at restaurants bring the bill, I ask: “Why does everything have to be about money?”
  3. I have a water leak under my sink, so I stopped looking under my sink so much. I’m sure that will fix it.
  4. Whenever I am caught stealing, I simply tell the cops that Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted me to have these items.
  5. Instead of teaching them what to do when they are stopped by the police, I teach my children that all people are equal so they can do whatever their white friends do. I’m pretty sure that will make them bulletproof.


Sam, thanks for trying to stand up against racism and hate. But if it doesn’t work, make sure you tell your neighbors about the Michael Harriot method. I’ve studied white people all my life and I’m pretty sure it works. Even if it doesn’t ...

I don’t see failure.