The Root's Clapback Mailbag: Stupid or Liar?

Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/G-O)

White people are smart.

They be knowing stuff.

And, as a lowly negro writer, it is my duty to study the emails, letters, tweets and direct messages received every week and use them as a valuable learning tool. Even when they say things that are not true, I must understand that the vast majority of these letters come from white people, which means they don’t have to deal in facts and logic.

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Some of these people aren’t just plain dumb. However, being born a Caucasian comes with the presumption of intelligence. Even when they lie, we are supposed to believe that they are telling the truth. The reason we do the weekly Clapback Mailbag is that we wanted to give our readers the opportunity to learn from people who honestly think they are smarter than they actually are.

You’re welcome.


Our first letter is in regards to an old article on IQ:

From: James B.
To: Michael Harriot

I’m a neuroscience student at NYU. It’s a very liberal school and they teach very politically correct, and I can still point out some assumptions you believe to be true. You assume that wealth is the sole indicator of IQ, which is a false assumption. We know that twins who were raised in different houses with access to different educations have a high correlation in IQ. We know that IQ is a predictor of future environment. People with poor IQ/high IQ surround themselves with other people of similar interests and to some extent, IQ. The people we spend time with in our childhood have a moderate amount of influence on our decision making and development growing up.

Furthermore, given the fact that SAT’s (or any other test used in education) correlate with ‘g’ AKA general intelligence as well as IQ. Consequently, those with more intelligence as well as greater motivation (which have a decent amount of heritability) will tend to get in to better schools and have a higher chance of getting a higher paying job than those who are of lesser intelligence. We know that there are certain polymorphisms in certain genes that occur in different in varying rates between races. Some of these single nucleotide polymorphisms alter important brain enzyme production and can additionally offer increased availability of things like dopamine as well as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), other neurotrophic factors among many other chemicals and neuropeptides.

As you’ve stated, some races have on average lower IQ or higher IQ. You presume that if these people had better access to education and more money, they would do better on some tests, but a study in the 90’s had shown that while yes, you can train people to use certain tools to improve a score, one would presume that given the fact that the sample size in the aforementioned study was mixed in race, the improvements affect each race and would still leave a disparity of average IQ by race.

This isn’t to say that some races are overall less intelligent than others, in fact, there are many qualities that African Americans have that other races do not, such as an increased sensitivity of typical alpha adrenergic receptors (whose endogenous ligand include norepinephrine and epinephrine (AKA noradrenaline and adrenaline) as well as, to a lesser extent than the former two, dopamine. All of the aforementioned neurotransmitters have a large implication in cognition, and hence black folks would be expected to have an increased ability to focus and would be able to sustain cognitive vigilance/arousal for longer.

But there is genuine science to prove differences not only in the general intelligence test scores but also the actual differences in the brain. Scientists could guess the brain owner’s race if trained to do so, that’s how recognizably different certain aspects are, like grey matter and orbitofrontal cortex volume as well as overall cerebellum volume. There are statistical differences between the volumes of parts of different race’s brains. I’m not going to go in to that because you probably will think I’m racist for trying to show the possible anatomical reasons for a different average IQ score in African Americans.

While I certainly agree that intelligence and IQ are different things, they’re not entirely unrelated. Good science does not care about political correctness. It’s truth that matters. Also I do agree that African Americans certainly have experience more difficulty succeeding in America over the past century, however, the playing field has largely been balanced in today’s society. Name one thing, one legal right or societal ability white people have that African Americans don’t. With the right skillset and motivation, one can go to community college, and if you do well there by working hard and studying, you can transfer to a good state school, get a high paying job afterwards, as long as you don’t choose a major like gender studies or sociology. Furthermore, most colleges have such backwards affirmative action that enables even the massively less intelligent to go to a good school if they are Hispanic or African American.

A experiment tested mock submissions to very good schools and a handful of Ivy Leagues using the same exact modest scores, differing only in race, and the results showed that Asian kids were the least likely to be accepted, followed closely by white kids who were also unlikely to be accepted, then after a huge gap there were the Latinos who were very likely and finally to Black students who were extremely likely to be accepted.

Here at my school, there are a number of African American students who while in my opinion deserve to be here, tested far poorer on academics and had poorer grades than their Asian and white counterparts. I myself am of Asian descent and have experienced mild discrimination in my early childhood, consisting of kids doing the “me Chinese” eyes, but kids don’t know how to act until they’re adults and often older.

Brain are developing and people have a lack of a filter but I don’t consider it racist, nobody I ever knew or had encountered ever expressed any actual dissent and hate towards another race, the only thing I’d ever come close to considering racist was a racist joke, but these kids didn’t hate black people or Latinos, they had said a few jokes for shock value, and this was in a predominantly white area, a place everyone would agree is supposed to be the most racist. Thanks for reading, James

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Dear James,

I was going to dismantle all of your preconceived notions with actual facts. I was going to explain how the measurables and assumptions you cited have no basis in fact. I was going to use the NFL Combine as an example.

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Before a player enters the NFL, the league measures their speed, jumping ability, strength and agility to grade prospective players. But it often doesn’t determine how well the players actually play. This is because, like an IQ test, the NFL combine is based on the things a group of white men arbitrarily decided were valuable.

I was going to tell you this to help you with your studies but when I looked you up in NYU’s student directory, I couldn’t find your name. I did find a guy whose name is the same as yours on Reddit. That guy also claims he attends NYU for neuroscience and says he did very well on the SAT. However, that guy seems to do a lot of psychedelic drugs, so there is no way to tell what he says is true.

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Plus, I would guess that the guy with your name, who says he also attends NYU, who also says he studies neuroscience, is only 19 and would likely know that there are no “neuroscience” undergraduate students at NYU. There’s a “Center for Neural Sciences” and a doctorate program for neuroscience. But anyway...

Because my tiny wittle negro brain is too dumb to understand all that big science talk, I decided to try to find an actual doctor who could understand what you were talking about. Lucky for you, I was able to find an actual neuroscientist who researches cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. Coincidentally, her last name is Harriot and—oh shit! Guess where she earned her MD and Ph.D.?

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The Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences at NYU.

What a motherfucking coincidence!

I actually forwarded your email to her and this is what she said.

Mikey, leave me alone!

This guy basically cut and pasted pseudoscience he cherrypicked on the internet. Anyone who compares hemodynamic sensitivity to brain activity is probably reading Reddit or 4chan. He knows a little bit about neural biochemistry and a lot about racism.

Congrats on the NABJ thing. Let me know when it is!

Damn, James, I was ready.


This is one of many responses to the letter about a white couple who took issue with a black player’s hair.

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From: Phillip F.
To: Michael Harriot

I got zero problem with the hair...but it should be under the helmet so (me, the guy who payed for a ticket)

I can read names; I mean, it’s ONLY been that way for............FOREVER!!!!!!!!!

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Instead of explaining to Phillip why his stance means he does actually have a problem with Sutherland’s hair or how he doesn’t quite seem to grasp the definition of “zero,” I should have simply assumed that Phil wasn’t very smart, for one reason:

Penn State uniforms don’t have names on the back of their jerseys.

Or maybe he was lying.

But Phillip wasn’t finished:

From: Phillip F.
To: Michael Harriot

I meant in general.. & I hope that when they start getting bulldogged by the hair to the ground they’ll realize it’s not very smart.

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I didn’t reply, but ya’ boy Phil still wasn’t done.

From: Phillip F.
To: Michael Harriot

Just wanted to tell you about an incident that happened here in Louisiana. A player & his parents fought for him to wear his hair like you seem to think is appropriate; he won & saw the field plenty. He was a pretty good player. He was a lockdown corner. In an important game he had to leave the field because his helmet came off & a piece was broke; the kid was replaced by a player not as talented. Out of timouts...so the other team went right at the kid who took “hairs” place!! 75 yard TOUCHDOWN!!! You might say that kids hair cost them the game. Yep, they lost!!!

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Dear Phillip,

I don’t believe you.

It’s not that I think you are a liar. I just think you are stupid.

But, because you just happened to leave out this important example in your two previous emails, let’s go with stupid. But I still have questions.

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Maybe your point is, if more black players cut their hair, their helmet would be more likely to stay on. But only the black players? Don’t white players have long hair, too? And how is a helmet affected by dangling hair? Is there a hidden plague of negro locs breaking helmets? Football teams are disproportionately black on every level, so why are you the only one who’s noticed this trend? And why do football equipment manufacturers refuse to acknowledge this epidemic?

Since I listened to your story, I want to tell you one of mine and an incident that happened during my first year in the public education system after spending the first decade of my life being homeschooled.

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Instead of changing classes, the students at Carolina Elementary stayed in one class all day and our teachers switched classrooms. Miss McPherson, a white lady, came to class every morning for math. Miss Branson, a young-ish white teacher, taught Social studies every afternoon, and our homeroom teacher—Mrs. Sellers—held down the rest of the subjects. Even though other teachers came to our classroom every day, we were “Mrs. Sellers’ class.”

For the first three-quarters of that first year, our social studies curriculum had focused on the Founding of America. We zipped through the Pilgrims, the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, George Washington and even the Constitution. And during the entire year, there wasn’t a single mention of slavery or any black person. I now realize that this is how the American education system is built. But after a decade of only reading and hearing about black people—fictional and real—the sudden erasure from the history of the world in which I lived was dramatic, to say the least.

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One fateful day, as soon Miss Branson walked into the class—before Mrs. Sellers even had a chance to leave—from behind me, my friend Monique, the only other black person in this supposedly “honors class” mumbled, under her breath just loud enough for me to hear it: “Well, I guess it’s time for the white people lesson again!”

“You know white people think black people were invented in 1865,” I responded.

Humor is subjective, but I know that joke is funny. I must admit, however, that it is not my own. I stole it from a Richard Pryor cassette tape I heard when I was running my lucrative mail-order scam of purchasing six cassette tapes for a penny and then ignoring the fact that I was supposed to purchase another album every month.

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Or maybe it was Redd Foxx. Or Flip Wilson. I had all the greats back then. It was a much simpler time for interstate postal fraud.

Perhaps no one laughed because the class hadn’t gone far enough into our textbook to place the joke in its proper historical context. I honestly doubt that Monique really got it, but she cracked up. It was probably the words “white people” that made her laugh, but I could hear her muffled falsetto giggle from behind me.

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Miss Branson got it.

“What did you say, Michael?” she asked.

“Ummm” I said, clearing my throat and increasing the energy in my delivery, figuring I was about to unleash the funniest piece of comic genius the class had ever heard. “You know white people don’t think black people were invented until 1865.”

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Because I had spent the first decade of my life in a cocoon that left me unaffected by whiteness, I had never been concerned with it. I never intentionally tried to make white friends. My real education wasn’t steeped in the narrative of white supremacy. The need for white acceptance or assimilation was a concept that has always escaped my grasp. It is not that I resist it. It simply doesn’t exist. My mother would later tell me that my entire childhood was based on her belief that—and this is a quote: “A black person’s humanity can never be fully realized in the presence of whiteness.”

So, as I watched the blood drain from Miss Branson’s face, I still did not know that I had said something wrong. When she pulled out that discipline slip and accused me of “using profane and/or inappropriate language,” I protested loudly. Yet, she wouldn’t lower her voice and explain what I did wrong. She was red-faced and screaming at me about how I was insulting her and the entire class. I could feel the spit mist landing on my face. As she stood over me, she demanded I apologize.

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“Apologize to whom?” I said while trying to stand up from my desk but Monique—probably thinking I wanted to fight—had grabbed me from behind. (And yes, nigga, I actually said “whom.”)

“To the entire class,” Miss Branson demanded. “And me.”

“For what?” I asked, legitimately perplexed. “I didn’t do anything.”

Now here is where my upbringing ruined me because, in a world fueled by logic, science, facts and—of course—the loving grace of Jesus, Miss Branson formed a sentence that most of the black world is intimately familiar with, but I had never heard before:

“Because I said so,” she said.

Because she said so. It was the most absurd collection of words I had ever heard cobbled together into a subject and predicate.

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“Who do you think you are?” I said. “Jesus? My mama? I refuse.”

This was probably not the best technique to use but, to be fair, my conflict resolution experience was limited to promises of “I ain’t gon’ do it no more” when my mama started looking for her belt. I could sense Miss Branson’s anger and frustration growing. This was the first time I had seen a truly angry white person, so the fact that she was turning beet red didn’t really raise any red flags. I thought it was interesting that she was turning such an interesting shade of pink. Was that fuschia or magenta? I wonder whatever happened to those twins Fuschia and Magenta who lived at...

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Whap!

Oh shit! Miss Branson had slapped me.

In front of the entire class.

It wasn’t a pimp slap or anything. Its might and velocity didn’t even compare to that time my mama slapped the shit out of me in church because I had my eyes open during the altar call prayer. Miss Branson was a petite white woman, so it didn’t really hurt or even make me mad which is why I had no idea why I was about to start crying. Perhaps it was because I still didn’t know what was going on. There was no logic or reason. I had taken ass-whippings before, but they had always made sense. The class was silent as my chest heaved faster and eyes filled with water. I tried to control my breathing to stop myself from crying in front of these white people, to no avail.

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And out of nowhere, like Batman, Mrs. Sellers came out of nowhere and lifted me in the air by the seat of my pants. I may be misremembering or embellishing the details of this memory, but if I had to bet my entire 401(k) on this, I could almost guarantee that my feet never touched the ground until Mrs. Sellers deposited me on the hallway floor outside the classroom.

I wish I had a transcript of the eloquent speech Mrs. Sellers gave me in the hallway of Carolina Elementary School that day. It would be an injustice to both you and her if I attempted to summarize her explanation of how one must tiptoe around the feelings of white people because they are white people and will always do what white people do. I can’t quite recall how she perfectly explained that all of the homeschooling, the Holy Ghost, the encyclopedia ingesting, the knowledge of self, the nonviolent-resistance, the grade-skipping, the smart-mouthing, the entirety of my life’s education meant nothing if I did not learn that existing in America is a lifelong exercise in knowing what you can’t do as a black man. Her lesson about learning to deal with and understand white people was my first real-world learning experience and I wish I could share her exact words, but I can’t...

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Because Mrs. Sellers didn’t say any of that shit.

She just stood there and let me cry.

Then she handed me the daintiest, whitest cloth handkerchief I had ever seen and, as I wiped my snot, she crouched beside me. I don’t know how her crackling knees, covered in usher-quality pantyhose, even allowed her to get that low, but they did.

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“You can not talk to them like that,” explained Mrs. Sellers. I distinctly remember how she enunciated the two words, separating them into isolated sentences. “Can. Not.”

“Who?” I asked, through sniffles.

“White people,” she whispered.

This is what Jonathan Sutherland felt like when he read that letter.

Phillip, when segregationists said they didn’t want their children to attend school with black students, they were unable to make a coherent argument explaining their reasoning. When police push back against biased policing, they refuse to admit that their practices are ineffective. People who insist on celebrating the Confederate States of America getting their ass kicked don’t ever have a logical explanation for their love of unpatriotic, race-based treason. The same holds true for the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, the people who hate people kneeling during the anthem and every other instance of institutional inequality. The only explanation the people in favor of upholding the tenets of white supremacy are ever able to offer is that they have always done it that way. They don’t have to have a reason and we are simply expected to comply.

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See, Phillip, tradition is part of white supremacy, too.

So when you and your Caucasian compatriates insist that dreadlocks are bad, I know there is no reason for your hate. I bet that Jonathan Sutherland is pondering the same question I have deliberately and subconsciously contemplated every day since the half-second before Miss Branson’s life-defining, pre-Social Studies slap:

Why do they “say so?”

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.