Jelani Cobb delivers lecture on racial justice

Dr.+Jelani+Cobb+speaks+in+Kagin+Hill+Ballroom.++Photo+by+Cameron+Hill+%E2%80%9919.

Dr. Jelani Cobb speaks in Kagin Hill Ballroom. Photo by Cameron Hill ’19.

Dr. Jelani Cobb speaks in Kagin Hill Ballroom.  Photo by Cameron Hill ’19.
]1 Dr. Jelani Cobb speaks in Kagin Hill Ballroom. Photo by Cameron Hill ’19.
Dr. Jelani Cobb visited Macalester’s Kagin Hill Ballroom last Friday, November 4 to give the annual El-Kati Lecture. The event also served as the keynote speech for the 2016 Kente Summit for Collegiate Black Men. Cobb, who is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University and a contributor to the New Yorker, gave his speech titled “The Half Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America Today” to a packed crowd of 300 Kente Summit participants, community members and Mac students and faculty.

The Kente Summit, which celebrated its sixth year last weekend, brings together African American college students from across Minnesota for a weekend of speeches and discussion. This is the Kente Summit’s first year in partnership with Macalester’s El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship. The lecture is named after History Professor Mahmoud El-Kati, who taught at the College from 1970-2003 and for a time was the only black man on the faculty and was instrumental in the birth of the American studies department. “El-Kati is truly the crown jewel of the American studies department,” Duchess Harris, American studies department chair, said as part of her introduction for Cobb. Harris celebrated bringing together the El-Kati Lectureship and the Kente Summit, as well as the bond between the college and the city of St. Paul that the event hoped to foster.

In addition to Harris’ remarks, a student from a neighboring college read Mayor Chris Coleman’s proclamation naming November 4, 2016 “Black Collegiate Men Day in the City of St. Paul.” Ryan Harris ’17 also read Cobb’s biography.

Cobb’s speech examined the throughline of racial history in America, drawing a clear path of democratic exclusion of black people most obviously manifested today in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. In talking about today’s most pressing issues, particularly police brutality, Cobb said, “We’re talking about race and policing, but fundamentally we’re talking about the nature of democracy, and who and who does not get to be counted in that democracy.”

Cobb said that the United States began as an experiment in democracy and social mobility, and that such an experiment required a controlled variable.

“The control was those people who would remain under the old border. That control was us,” Cobb said. Cobb celebrated his father’s and countless others’ refusal to be a part of that control group.

He also celebrated the means by which black people have fought white supremacy. Regarding police violence, he said, “we understand what happens now because we have cameras. Don’t mistake this for a new phenomenon.” On the topic of technology, he continued, “every time a new type of technology is introduced, we’ve used it to show what is happening to us.” Cobb cited Frederick Douglass’ use of publishing, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others’ use of TV cameras to capture protests and contemporary use of phone cameras to document police violence.

Attendees line up to speak with Cobb after he delivered the El-Kati Lecture. Photo by Cameron Hill ’19.
]2 Attendees line up to speak with Cobb after he delivered the El-Kati Lecture. Photo by Cameron Hill ’19.

According to Cobb, the end of slavery was followed by the implementation of convicts doing the work once done by slaves. He pointed to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the Angola, Louisiana prison which was once the Angola, Louisiana plantation. He examined how the criminal justice system and lynchings combined to erase black representation in voting post-emancipation. That erasure, Cobb said, is present today in the criminal justice system.

Cobb’s historical outline then led him to Obama’s election, the myth of a post-racial society and the campaign of Donald Trump. He called many white people’s response to Obama’s election an “orgy of self-congratulation that 40 percent of white people had done something 100 percent of black voters had been doing since the 15th Amendment passed [voting for a candidate of a different race].” The rise of Trump, Cobb argued, represents a backlash against the election of the nation’s first black president. Cobb said that backlashes have taken place after a number of moments of major racial shift in the US: the rise of lynchings followed emancipation; Northern race riots followed the Great Migration; and now Trump follows the election of a black man to the nation’s highest office.

“Trump doesn’t come out of nowhere,” Cobb said. He pointed to a rising number of white Americans over the past five years who have begun to say in polls that whites are the most disadvantaged group in the country. He called Trump’s rise “American fascism,” arguing that fascism emanates from “national humiliation,” which is how many white Americans would constitute Obama’s election.

In response to an audience question about the definition of fascism, Cobb detailed many of its traits, including extreme nationalism, suspicion of foreigners and immigrant groups, reliance on police order and language of salvation from its leader. He added that the most horrifying line of Trump’s RNC speech was “I am the only one who can save you.” Cobb argued that fascism as a word is close enough to describe Trump’s position.

He ended his speech on a hopeful note, saying, “the struggles that are behind us are bigger than those in front of us.” The crowd gave Cobb a standing ovation before transitioning into a question and answer session.