Journalist Jelani Cobb explored America’s history of racism as well as its present existence Tuesday night. Cobb, a professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has been published in The Washington Post and has written a series of articles centered on race, the police and injustice for The New Yorker.
His lecture, titled “The Half-Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America Today,” was hosted by the Dean’s Fellows of the College of Arts and Letters.
Cobb said race replays itself constantly as a theme in history.
“It’s not simply an issue,” Cobb said. “We can’t fundamentally understand how the country came into existence or what the country is without looking at this subject. … This idea of ‘We the People,’ this founding creed, that the ultimate authority is ‘we.’ But the more important question is who is this ‘we’? It’s a question we have never reconciled.”
Cobb said he previously taught at Moscow University, and it was there that one of his colleagues mentioned a particular optimism he thought defined Americans. He said it’s this sense of optimism that is applied to our understanding of the past. However, he said he stands firm on the belief that progress is not permanent, and there’s always the potential of moving backwards.
“Progress doesn’t look like a straight line,” Cobb said. “It looks more like an EKG. We’ve seen these great moments of peaks which have been followed by valleys with the hope that the peaks are higher and the valleys are shallow.”
Cobb said the rise of hateful organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and acts such as lynching was fueled by an underlying objective to eliminate a sense of racial progress and was part of the resistance to racial integration and equality.
Cobb said discrimination was not limited to African Americans and cited examples through history such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. He talked about inequality for African Americans among areas such as health care, life expectancy and unemployment rates.
Originally published The Observer at ndsmcobserver.com on February 8, 2017.