This week’s Clapback Mailbag is about strawmen.
When people try to disprove a reasonable argument by distorting the premise of the debate, there’s always a leap in logic that you might not notice unless you examine it closely.
For instance, people who refute “black lives matter” with “but what about black-on-black crime” always forget to mention white-on-white crime or the fact that the Movement for Black Lives also want Black criminals to recognize the value of a Black life just like we want white people to see our worth.
When they follow up with “not all white people,” their rapid onset Caucasian amnesia erases the fact that they just suggested that all Black people should answer for the statistically insignificant subset of Black criminals.
But strawmen swear they have all the answers.
Take this guy, for instance. He represents a lot of people who want to know why I keep blaming white people for the things white people actually do.
Here’s the problem with your argument:
You don’t understand the meaning of “atone”:
Atone: to make amends : to provide or serve as reparation or compensation for something bad or unwelcome
When one atones for something, they just don’t stop doing bad things, they actually try to correct the harm that they’ve done. This is not just a semantic argument.
When we discuss crime, we often talk about the sentences people receive as punishment, but we rarely mention the monetary fines that the guilty are charged with paying as restitution. It’s because compensation is as much a part of justice as punishment. It is spelled out in peace treaties, out-of-court settlements and even handshake deals.
You can’t dig a hole in someone’s yard and say you’re sorry. You have to fill it back up. And, in these specific cases, it is not enough for white people to acknowledge the harm that they’ve done, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you. They also have to take steps to repair the damages.
Tina Fey not only stereotyped black people in front of an audience of millions, but she created a show (30 Rock) that aired for 138 episodes without a single black person in a position of leadership. Those stereotypes persist because millions of people have subconsciously consumed negative portrayals of black people for years. And if those portrayals air in primetime on one of the biggest platforms on the planet, many people assume there must be some truth to them.
That is not an innocuous thing. And undoing it takes more effort than sweeping them under a rug and sharing a “my bad” tweet. Kirsten Dunst and Jenny Slate didn’t just do some voice work that looks bad in retrospect. In such a competitive industry, they provided an excuse for producers and casting agents because, if a white girl could do any job, then how can a black or biracial actress ever have a chance?
I’m not saying any of these people should be flogged to death or tarred and feathered. What I’m saying is that they haven’t atoned for the shit that they did.
And, even if America finally comes to grips with its past and admits that this country has done a lot of fucked-up shit to nonwhite people, that still won’t be enough.
They have to make it right.
And that requires more than stopping the bad shit and offering an apology. Because that alone is not justice.
It’s white privilege.
I received this interesting perspective from a reader:
From Ben O.
To: Michael Harriot
I stumbled across your article on being sent to jail and went down the rabbit hole reading some of your work.
Confession: I am black man who is a conservative Republican. It seems as if you have a ton of facts and figures about discrimination and racismbut one of the things you never address is what people like you and me can do about it. It seems to me that the left wants everyone to buy into this hysteria but the only thing we can do about it is to try to be the best, hardestworking Americans that we can be and stop worrying abut what racists do.
Instead of telling people albout every incident of racism, whiat if you just pushed responsibility, education and hard work instead? Don’t you think that would make people unite more and less angry and outraged? Think of it like this, If no one hadn’t reported on racists coming to Birmingham, no one would have showed up to protest and if you weren’t there to report on a story about a protest by racists, you wouldn’t have been arrested.
Maybe African Americans need less stories about racism and more stories about what’s good about this country.
Just my opinion
When I was 6 or 7, my mom bought a bed for me.
Well…my room was actually so small, that instead of a bed, she bought a couch.
Actually, it wasn’t really a couch nor was it wide enough to be a single bed. It had two large cushions that just leaned against the wall if you wanted to use it as a couch. And you could remove the cushions and lie down if you wanted to use it as a bed. (You could also use the cushions as imaginary wrestling opponents if you wanted to jump off the bed as if you were “Nature Boy” Ric Flair jumping off the top rope of a wrestling ring but that’s not relevant to this story).
I still don’t know what technical classification of ghetto furniture it fit under but we called it the “couchbed” because sometimes it was a couch, sometimes it was a bed.
News Editor Monique Judge: the technical classification is “a corner group”
Now, because we only had one television in our house, I positioned this real nigga futon so that I could see the television in the den when I was laying on the bed, sitting on the couch. So, after my bedtime, when I was supposed to be sleeping, or during the day when I was putting the Iron Sheik in the Figure Four, my couchbed gave me the perfect vantage point watch whatever my mother and my grandmother watched.
From the couchbed, I remember my grandmother watching the news and hearing her say that if Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, Black people would be picking cotton again. My exposure to sarcasm was very limited back then, so I was worried as fuck about being reintroduced back into slavery.
Would I be separated from my mama? Would our future slave masters allow my baby sister to wear her church shoes to bed so she wouldn’t cry and sneak in her room in the middle of the night to take them off?
So I decided to learn about slavery.
I read Before the Mayflower before I was 10. I consumed history books, articles and everything that I thought could prepare and teach me the best practices of being human chattel. I even looked in an Atlas to map out an escape route and plotted the entire family’s escape to Canada.
Before I hit that couchbed on election night, I prayed like hell that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t win, to no avail. It was probably Christmas before I stopped worrying about re-enslavers coming to snatch us up in the middle of the night.
A couple of years earlier, from the couchbed, I heard about the Atlanta child murders.
All summer, I was afraid every time my sisters stepped out of the house, so I convinced my mother to sign me up for Kung Fu lessons (we could only find Taekwondo, which was close enough). I made a pair of nunchucks and ordered throwing stars out of magazines. I’d be ready if this murderous motherfucker was gonna steal one of my sisters but luckily, he never came.
And then there was The Day After.
The Day After was a television movie on ABC (although I swear I remember it being on NBC) about the aftermath of Russia dropping a nuclear bomb on America. I remember watching it from the couchbed and sinking into a deep depression. For years, I was constantly worried about nuclear war, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I lived less than five miles from a nuclear power plant. But, unlike the Atlanta child killer or the Ronald Reagan Slavery Executive Order, there wasn’t really anything I could do. So the idea of a nuclear holocaust became my greatest childhood fear.
Now, none of those fears were rational. I haven’t done the calculations or looked up the statistics, but I would guess that there was less than a 50 percent chance that Russia was going to target Hartsville, S.C., with a nuclear bomb. The probability of a mass murderer leaving the Atlanta area and coming to my hometown was even slimmer. And the Reagan administration must have shelved their plans to stimulate the economy by reintroducing slavery.
But it was real to me.
Less than a month ago, I was talking to my mother and, for some reason, I told her about all the horrors I had seen from the couchbed. She said that she had no idea, but had she known, she would have fixed the problem. When I asked her what she could have done to quell my psychological anxiety and change the world around me, she had a brilliant plan already chambered:
She would have moved the couchbed.
“That’s not a solution,” I thought. “Nothing would have changed except I wouldn’t have known what was actually happening.”
A few days ago, my son was stopped by the police.
To me, this is the equivalent of a nuclear holocaust.
My son is one of those people who follows every rule to the letter of the law. He chastises me because I will sometimes pump gas while the car is running even though the sign clearly instructs customers to shut off their car engines.
I knew he had been stopped by the cops because I trained him how to use Siri shortcut on his phone that automatically sends a text message with his location whenever he is pulled over. We actually had training sessions on how to reach for his license and registration. We practiced what to say to the police.
He left home early that morning to move out of his college apartment, which means he was pulled over as he was driving through back roads in Alabama. When I saw the text, I was worried as fuck but I kept it to myself. However, I forgot that the Siri shortcut also sent a message to his mom, who was frantic.
I tried my best to calm her down but, that wasn’t happening. I tried to explain that there was nothing we could do but wait to see what happened. Then an argument broke out because, like an idiot, I said, out loud, that she shouldn’t worry because he’d probably be alright, which, as you can imagine, didn’t go over that well.
Sometimes I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a husband as stupid as I am. Luckily, he was OK (except for the speeding ticket, part). He later told me that he was rushing to get home because he knew that there was a citywide curfew.
“Your mom was freaking out,” I told him. “Maybe I should have the ‘stopped by police’ text only sent to me.”
“Well, that’s a stupid solution,” he said.
Even he knew how dumb that idea is.
And he’s never seen a couchbed.