A Talk with 'New Yorker' Journalist Jelani Cobb
BY: ELISHA BROWN AND JENNA CALDWELL
Celebrated journalist Jelani Cobb recently took on the heavy burden of covering the federal trial of Dylann Roof — the 22-year-old white supremacist who was sentenced to the death penalty for shooting nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015.
Enduring the emotional and mental strain of this case, Cobb flew to the west coast, as far away from the south as he could.
When he arrived in San Francisco for an appointment, Cobb realized he hadn’t talked to anyone all day and made conversation with the bellman in his hotel. The New Yorker writer asked the man where he was from.
The bellman said that he was a native Charlestonian and his family knew librarian Cynthia Hurd, one of the nine churchgoers murdered during that fatal night on June 17, 2015.
At last Thursday night’s “The Half Life of Freedom” lecture in the Katzen Arts Center, Cobb told that story while also highlighting that racism isn’t just regional — it’s fundamental to the history of the United States.
Before Cobb wrote about race and politics for New York Magazine, he received his undergraduate degree from Howard University. Though he started off as more of a historian who dabbled in writing, one of Cobb’s first journalism jobs was at the alt-weekly Washington City Paper.
Today, Cobb is viewed as one of the nation’s most prolific writers on race and politics in American society. The Queens native was also featured in Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated “13th,” a Netflix documentary that draws out the parallels between slavery and mass incarceration, while simultaneously exploring the intersection of race and justice the United States.
We spoke with Cobb after his keynote to see what he thinks about the future of the Black Lives Matter movement and press freedoms during the Trump administration.
Elisha Brown, Co-Editor-in-Chief: Last year you released a long-form piece on Black Lives Matter. Now that Trump is in The White House, what do you think the future of Black Lives Matter is?
Cobb: We should be very concerned about the language that’s being used around [Black Lives Matter] and possibly them being stigmatized as terroristic or anti-police and so on. That is something that’s very concerning. But I also think that this is the point where the contradictions have become so apparent that you can’t stop the movement from flourishing. People can see what’s happening and they can disseminate— they can share what’s happening. So it’s going to be very difficult to take the oxygen away from that movement. But we should be resolute and we should be [focused on] whether or not [people are] being arrested and whether or not they’re being harassed. All these things are liable, likely possible to happen because of the tenor of politics in the country right now.
Elisha: In one of your recent articles, you talked about “fake news” being turned into a euphemism of sorts. What do you mean by that?
Cobb: We used to have this thing called propaganda, [but] now we call it fake news. I think we are uncomfortable with that word. Essentially what we’re talking about is propaganda, [as well as] propaganda war and conflicts. We should be very straightforward about that and willing to kind of confront it for what it is...that’s what I meant by that.
Jenna Caldwell, Engagement Editor: Anti-blackness has been pretty historic within the U.S., but we also see it globally. You said you went to Russia earlier, which has been called a "racist state." How do you think this global anti-blackness has come about, especially in places where black people have never occupied, like eastern Asia?
Cobb: Yes so there’s racism in Russia, but it’s hard to put that within the context of global anti-blackness because the primary form of racism there is directed at Asians, not black people. There’s a much more intimate history between Asians and white Russians and that’s kind of the main source of conflict there. [Additionally,] the Soviet Union had this long history of anti-racism. A kind of younger generation is breaking [away from] this past that the Soviets had in terms of anti-colonialism, civil rights and so on, [which] is part of that dynamic as well. Even though there is racism there, we shouldn’t confuse that with the sort of racism of the transatlantic trade slave, through slavery, Jim Crow and whatever kind of variety we see here, or the colonialism we see in the Caribbean and so on. It’s a different kind of dynamic. But there is a good book called “Racisms” by [Francisco] Bethencourt . He talks about the way in which what we think of as racism now is very different from how it was historically conceptualized. And that’s a good kind of starting point [for understanding this issue].