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The Root's Clapback Mailbag: The Gray Area

Illustration for article titled The Roots Clapback Mailbag: The Gray Area
Illustration: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/G-O)
Clapback MailbagEach Friday, we select the best (or worst) emails, tweets, DMs and comments from our readers and respond to them in the The Root's Clapback Mailbag.

If you are a regular reader of The Root (or any of the G/O Media sites), then you might be familiar with the ghetto section of our sites that we term “The Grays.” The Grays is the area containing comments that are “pending approval” and appear as grayed out, unlike the good, white comments.

I don’t visit The Grays.

It’s not that I consider them to be any lesser than approved commenters, they’re just not like our “regular” commenters. Some of them are trolls, but many of them are readers who are new to this particular area on the internet but haven’t received the necessary documentation to become a citizen of the Kinja comment board. But, until they go through our rigorous verification procedure to make sure they didn’t bring in viruses from other websites and won’t violate our rules, they don’t deserve to have the same rights as everyone else.


Sure, there were some people who are not in the grays simply because they were born here, before we instituted some of our comment section immigration policies. Some have friends who are already here who approve their comments immediately and invite them out of the grays. Even when those people troll, we still consider them to be real Kinja-Americans. Some people say that’s white-comment privilege but we want to keep an eye on “the others” to keep our comment section safe.

Anyway, all of today’s mailbag participants are from “those people.”

This first comment is from the article on the reasons for the disproportionately high death rates of Black COVID-19 suffers.


From: Ouroboros
To: Michael Harriot

I saw how you were being cagey and saying a few times “which is one reason why black employees are overrepresented in every category of public sector employment”, or “these are just a few of the reasons African Americans are more willing to work for government entities”. I’ve read that the reason African-Americans are overrepresented in civil service jobs like city sanitation workers, public libraries, postal service, teachers/public school employees, bus drivers, and so on is that in government hiring, they are less likely (notice I did not say can’t or don’t) to racially discriminate. Public sector jobs being a bastion of fairness. Does that track?


Dear Ouroboros,

You’re right, I was being cagey about that. Perhaps I should explain it further by telling you the story of Harriet Jacobs.


Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in 1813...but not really.

According to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem (that which follows the womb), a child born to a slave was also a slave. Harriet’s grandmother, Molly, was freed by her owner but was kidnapped and re-enslaved. Because a black person had no rights, Harriet’s mother was doomed for a life of slavery as was Harriet and her brother, John.


But not really.

Harriet and her brother were determined to escape after their entire family was sold at auction. They taught themselves how to read and vowed to escape. Molly (Harriet’s grandmother) was eventually freed again and allowed to live in a house on the plantation where Harriet and John were allowed to live as slaves. When she was 15, Harriet’s master (on the plantation where Molly lived) began sexually harassing her. Hoping for protection, she began a relationship with Samuel Sawyer, a lawyer who would become a U.S. congressman and father Harriet’s two children.


Harriet’s master was so mad about the relationship, he sold Harriet to his brother but Harriet eventually escaped.

Meanwhile, Harriet’s harassing master offered her children along with her brother at discount to a slave trader, but only after the slave trader promised to separate them and sell them individually (yeah, the slave master was that evil). The slave trader promised but, instead, sold the entire family to Sawyer (you know, the slave-raping congressman). Sawyer promised Harriet that he’d free their kids and her brother.


He never did.

He did, however, send the kids to live with their great-grandmother, Molly. This made Harriet a little happier because she got a chance to see them every day. She had the opportunity to watch them grow up.


How did she do that, if she escaped?

Well, Harriet escaped to a swamp. She would live in the swamp all day and, at night, she hid out in Molly’s attic, never revealing her presence to her kids. The attic had no light and, at its highest point, was three feet tall. But, Harriet managed to drill a hole in the cramped crawlspace so she could read the Bible and watch her kids.


She lived that way for seven years.

Eventually, Harriet was able to escape to New York, where she reunited with her children and her brother who had been sent North by Sawyer but still essentially lived as slaves. After seven grueling years, she was able to live and work as a free woman.


But not really...

See, because of the fugitive slave laws, the evil slave master still owned Harriet. Every so often, the evil slave master would find out where she was and Harriet would have to move or just leave town to avoid being re-enslaved. The raping congressman still owned Harriet’s children and brother, even though he had sent them to free states to live with their Harriet. It wasn’t until 1852, when Harriet was 39 years old, that abolitionist Cornelia Grinnell Willis, for whom Harriet worked as a nanny, would purchase Harriet’s freedom for $300.


What does any of this have to do with black people working for the government? Well, it has to do with a question that is an existential philosophical exercise for you but a reality that nearly every black person in America must contemplate and definitively answer:

What is “free?”

Is a slave who lives with her grandmother and gets raped regularly freer than a woman who essentially spent seven years in a cage? Would you be happier if your children lived with the slave master who fathered them by raping you or the slave master who sold their entire family down the river as revenge because he wanted to rape their mother? Would you rather be a fugitive slave separated from your kids or raise them under the brutality of bondage?


Or, in this case, would you rather cast your lot by exposing yourself to the capriciousness of white America’s racism for the chance to work in private industry or become a government worker in a system that offers benefits, security and makes it difficult to lose your job? Would you rather freelance in a racist system under people for whom you are expendable or would you rather trust the bureaucracy that offers you some measure of protection—even if it is just on paper?

Every black person subconsciously or knowingly makes that calculation at some point in their life. It’s why a lot of people would rather become a postal worker or a garbageman. A lot of people, including myself, look at those people and say they have “good jobs.” It has nothing to do with benefits or salary. It’s because a black person is extremely lucky to have some part of their lives where their effort, performance and ability is the only thing that determines their future...


But not really.

And another one:

From: Anonymous
To: Michael Harriot

I am an employee with Jefferson County DHR and 95% of what is in this article is false and opinionated from one person who is pissed that she has been identified as an essential worker and has to work from the office at this time. She failed to mention that ALL of our child welfare workers are teleworking from home and have been for the past 3 weeks. Our director have shared information with the entire agency as it relates to updates regarding our safety and new policy and procedures to ensure that our “essential workers” who are actually still out making face to face contact with families and children are safe. We are all adults employed by the state of Alabama and as an adult myself, there is no one in this building that can prevent me from leaving in the event I feel I am unsafe.

Tammara stated that an “employee” was threatened to be disciplined due to throwing up in a trash can. Well as an adult, if you are sick you have the right to tell your supervisor you don’t feel well and that you are leaving. Why stay at work and complain and possibly expose the rest of your “essential” co workers. There have been continuous updates provided to the employees to assist with the daily duties that we signed up for. Yes the Coronavirus came in and disrupted our normal routine but what it did not do is stop the abuse and neglect of children who we “essential” workers have a duty to protect. Workers are risking their chances of being exposed to this virus by ensuring the safety of our children here in Alabama.

We are essential because there are children and families that need our services. I am certain that there have not been several POSITIVE cases of the coronavirus within our agency. Employees who thought they were having symptoms or thought they may have been exposed have been advised to get tested and self quarantine. I just wanted to add my own opinion about the statement that was made regarding this “bring you a## to work order” that is furthest from the truth.


Dear Anonymous,

Sometimes, when I receive a response like yours, I ask myself:

“Why, though?”

I know there are at least two sides to every story, but help me figure out what your logic is. Let’s say Tamara is lying: Why would she engage in these shenanigans?


You say: “I am certain that there have not been several POSITIVE cases of the coronavirus within our agency. Employees who thought they were having symptoms or thought they may have been advised to get tested and self-quarantine.”

Seriously? Y’all have coronavirus tests just laying around the office? And, although no part of our article said there were “several” (or even multiple) positive tests unless your agency provided testing for all “essential” employees, how would you know?


One of the things I should tell you is that Tamara first contacted me on March 25, before the coronavirus crisis had exploded in Birmingham. I didn’t move quickly because I figured she’d be surely working from home by the time I finished looking into the story. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

The fact that the child welfare workers are working from home should tell you that the higher-ups know that you are in danger. You say that you are an adult and no one could keep you there if you didn’t feel safe. I understand that is your perspective. But some people apparently feel so unsafe that they reached out to reporters. Some people felt unsafe and are still working. What if their situation is different from yours? What if they don’t have that privilege? But somehow, you are absolutely sure that you are in a safe, coronavirus-free space.


Others are not.

And according to you, they could have just lied about being exposed, not come to work and say they were self-quarantining. According to you, everyone who feels different is not telling the truth. According to you, everyone at your agency is free to speak out without retribution.


Instead, someone chose to continue vomiting in random trashcans. Instead, they reached out to a stranger. Instead, they followed up on those messages weeks later. Instead, they chose to remain anonymous. Instead, they forwarded emails to me.

Why, though?

Can you answer that one question?

These comments are about the various articles linking coronavirus to white supremacy, including this one:

From: John P.
To: Michael Harriot

The culprit is white supremacy? Who could have guessed that the brilliant Michael Harriot would have reached such a wise conclusion?

From: JustPlainTruth
To: Michael Harriot

So nothing whatsoever to do with overeating and lack of personal responsibility right? I’m sorry but writing yet another article desperately looking for ways to blame the white man for black people just eating like pigs is not what is needed right now. Obesity is the number one factor. The majority of black america is fat, obese, overweight. But tell the truth and you get called an uncle Tom.

From: No Salad At TheCookout
To: Michael Harriot

Really? You don’t think these “health disparities” have anything to do with the ubiquitous “cookout” culture that pushes unhealthy food as a staple of identitarian pride? A cookout where “salad” means chicken, potatoes, and mayonnaise? Or even just the normalization of serious health problems exhibited in this very piece, a la “My high blood pressure is no big deal, everyone in my family has it”? Black people might be dying at a disproportionate rate, but you know who’s dying at a far more disproportionate rate? Fat people. YOU make fun of white people for being skinny, and eating salads, and doing yoga as if health is an essentially white concern. Don’t blame them for making black people fat, hypertensive, and diabetic, AND dismissive of these serious health problems.


Dear All,

When I was a kid, I went to the hospital all the time.

When I was 11, in one year, I sprained my wrist, broke my finger, I fell off the monkey bars at a park and woke up in the hospital with a concussion and I had food poisoning.


Then there was the tummyache.

My stomach always hurt. My mom told me it was because I ate too much, so I ate less but my tummy still hurt. She tried to give me a low-fat diet (it was the thing back then,) but it still hurt. I took Pepto-Bismol, castor oil, prayer and everything else. The only thing that would work is when I took a couple of Tylenol or aspirin.


One night, it got so bad that I went to the hospital again. They had me take a white substance called a barium swallow. It essentially coats the stomach and intestinal tract with a slightly radioactive substance that shows up on X-rays, highlighting any problem areas. They found out that I had a slight peptic ulcer, which is caused by smoking, drinking too much alcohol or stress. I didn’t drink much alcohol when I was 11 and rarely smoked. And, aside from the impending nuclear war, I didn’t have much to worry about. They couldn’t figure it out.

A few days later, my regular pediatrician, Dr. Coward, a saint, called me in. And he looked at how many times I had been to the hospital. He asked my mom what she had given me for the sprained wrist. My mom, who didn’t trust white folks’ medicine (other than Dr. Coward’s), said she gave me aspirin and Tylenol. She gave me the same thing for the broken finger. It’s also what I took for the concussion. She used Tylenol to break the food poisoning fever. I took one of the two whenever my stomach hurt. In fact, if anything ever hurt, the only medicine I was allowed to take was aspirin, Tylenol or the blood of Jesus.


It turns out, the ibuprofen or aspirin was eating the lining of my stomach, giving me the ulcer. I stopped eating Tylenol like Tic Tacs and the ulcer went away. Thankfully, the brilliant Dr. Coward had figured out what was making me sick:

Being sick.

Guys, you’re right. According to the CDC, 76. 1 percent of black lack people are obese, compared to white people (69.9). White people are more likely to smoke cigarettes but black people are more likely to have hypertension (61.2 for blacks, 51.9 for whites) and other health complications.

Illustration for article titled The Roots Clapback Mailbag: The Gray Area

Black people are also poorer. Even when it is controlled for education, black men earn 87 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Black people are underemployed and underinsured.


But not that much.

Take a look at the infection and death rates in Chicago. According to their data, black Chicagoans are infected at three times the rate of whites and die at eight times the rate of whites.

Illustration for article titled The Roots Clapback Mailbag: The Gray Area
Graphic: City of Chicago

There is nothing that correlates to those numbers. Poverty doesn’t explain it. Obesity doesn’t explain it. Even if every black person was an uninsured essential worker who had hypertension, diabetes, and smoking-induced asthma and every white person was healthy as a white horse, the numbers just don’t add up. There is only one thing that can make this make sense:

The sickness.

Why do you think black people are obese? Do you think we eat worse food because we aren’t as smart as white people? Do you think we’re barred from their stores? Or do you think it might have something to do with black people being more likely to be food insecure and live in food deserts? Could the high rates of asthma have something to do with black neighborhoods having lower quality air or do you think we’re born with weak lungs? Could disproportionate hypertension and diabetes rates be related to the lack of grocery stores that sell fresh fruit and vegetables versus the availability of fast food in redlined neighborhoods? Could it be the prices are higher in minority neighborhoods or do you think that black people don’t like that organic shit?


And finally, do you think all of this inequality could possibly be coincidental or do you think it has nothing to do with history? Do you think these disparities just suddenly appeared out of nowhere? And what could I possibly profit from making this all up?

I really want to understand this. I want there to be another reason but for the life of me, I can’t find one.


It’s because there is only two possible answers:

Either the sickness of white supremacy is making us sicker, or...

Or black people just like to die.

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

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Fucking THANK YOU for mentioning food deserts.