Race and the U.S. are inseparable for writer and historian Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker writer used history to explain today’s political climate
Jelani Cobb gave the audience a history lesson Thursday night in the Abramson Family Founder's Room, showing how America’s foundations are rooted in race, even today.
“We cannot understand the United States without understanding race,” Cobb, a writer for the New Yorker, historian and journalism professor at Columbia University, said.
During the event, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and AU Student Media, Cobb recounted his experience covering the Dylann Roof trial in South Carolina.
He said that the trial felt like he had been at a funeral and couldn’t wait to leave. He left for San Francisco, but when he landed the first person he spoke to was from Charleston. Their childhood librarian, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of the victims.
“Our issue of race is not an issue that is geographic or local or one that can be confined to a particular locale,” he said. “It’s one that occupies the borders of the nation we inhabit.”
Using the Roof trial as a starting point, Cobb spoke about how no one can leave race behind when talking about the country’s past, saying that despite the “toxic hatred of the ideology” that Roof took up, it was pretty much in line with the history of the Confederacy.
Cobb mentioned the fear of Southern legislators in the 1960s that the Civil Rights Act would create white inequality, planting the “seed of opposition” toward the current civil rights movement. He also cited the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed Black men as rapists and re-ignited the Ku Klux Klan after its release.
He pointed out that after Roof killed nine people on June 17, 2015 with the intention of “protecting” the country from black rapists. The murders occurred one day after Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign and “said in short that he was running to protect the country of Mexican rapists,” Cobb said.
“I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship between these two things,” Cobb said. “But what I am saying is that they’re responding to this same antique fear, that antique fear-mongering around race and rape.”
According to Cobb, history is not an isolated moment. It’s part of a pattern of progress and backlash. For instance, Cobb drew a parallel between slavery and mass incarceration today.
During slavery, Southern states were allowed to count 60 percent of their enslaved population as citizens, although they couldn’t vote. Today, inmates from five “overwhelmingly black and brown” zip codes in New York City account for 80 percent of all inmates in New York detention facilities, Cobb said.
However, Cobb said, they are largely incarcerated in places that are white and rural, where they are counted as part of that area in the census although they are not from there and cannot vote. This is an issue that Cobb speaks more about in the documentary “13th,” which was nominated for an Academy Award this year.
After his talk, Cobb took questions from the audience about education, the role of religion in the modern civil rights movement and self care. He said he strongly believes in picking your battles, and to consider this when confronted with microaggressions.
“When you tell people what punch hurts, that’s the punch they hit you with again,” he said.
Going forward, Cobb said that although he’s not overly optimistic for the future, whenever there has been opposition to civil rights in history, people of conscience have stepped up to reassert democracy and freedom.
“A genuine civilization is struggling to be born,” he said. “That genuine civilization has not yet been born, that’s the task that Dr. King took for himself, that is the task that confronts us this evening and that is the task which, if history is any guide, we will ultimately achieve.”