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Race in America: Past, Present, and Future Jelani Cobb Speaks at American University

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Jelani Cobb with students and faculty members
Jelani Cobb with students and faculty members. Photo by Clapp Studios.

On February 23, students and faculty from AU and surrounding universities came together at the Katzen Arts Center to hear Jelani Cobb speak about race, the history of the civil rights movement, and what he describes as a pattern in US history of racial progress followed by powerful backlash and countermovement.

Cobb is a nationally known author, contributor to The New Yorker, and Columbia University professor of journalism, who writes primarily about racial injustice, its roots in American history, and its continuing, powerful influence. His most recent book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. He won the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism for his columns on race, politics, and injustice—including “The Anger in Ferguson,” “The Matter of Black Lives,” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations.”

Cobb spoke at AU as part of the Bishop C. C. McCabe lecture series, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Cobb, On Race Today

Cobb began his discussion with the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, which he covered for The New Yorker. After the trial ended, Cobb flew across the country to San Francisco, hoping to take a break from the heartbreak and tragedy. But the very first person he met in California was a hotel bellman. This man told Cobb that he lost someone dear to him in the church shooting—his childhood librarian, Cynthia Hurd.

Cobb was shaken. “I flew almost as far as I could fly without leaving the intercontinental United States,” he explained. “And the first person I interacted with had been directly impacted by the situation that I had foolishly thought I could leave behind in Charleston, South Carolina. And so it reminds me yet again that our issue of race is not one that is geographic or local, or one that can be confined to a particular locale. It is one that contours to the borders of our nation, perfectly.”

We’ve Always Been Here

“How did we get here?” Cobb asked. “Well, in some ways, we’ve always been here.”

Though it may seem unbelievable to some people that an atrocity like this could occur in a nation that recently elected (and re-elected) its first African American president, it comes as no surprise to Cobb. Roof was not an aberration, Cobb said, and his actions did not happen in a bubble.

Racial progress in the United States has always been followed by waves of backlash, he said, fueled by a culture of paranoia and victimhood by people who feel threatened by it. We only have to look back to the lynchings in the south, he said, and the rise of the KKK during Reconstruction, or the housing segregation in northern cities during the Great Migration.

These reactions are not just a thing of the past, Cobb reminded the audience. He pointed to how Obama’s 2008 election was followed by the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He also described the new populist political force rising in this country, based on what Cobb describes as “the contrary idea that White people are the most disadvantaged group in American society.”

Where Do We Go?

So what do we do now, Cobb asked, and how do we keep moving forward during these difficult times?

Cobb looks back at history for guidance. “I think there is cause for optimism, a kind of hard won optimism, when we look at the fact that each time when we have found ourselves in the depths of despair, it summons people of conscience and good will to the cause of reasserting democracy and freedom.”

After all, Cobb said, many heroes in American history were only able to do great things because of the size of the opposition against them. Against all evidence to the contrary, they believed that slavery should end, that women should have the right to vote, that our country can develop a humane immigration policy, that we can create protections for workers.

Cobb ended on a note of hope. “What I do believe in is the capacity of people with conscience to move the world forward,” he said. “Progress happens. It does take a long time, but it happens.”