Jelani Cobb on the half-life of freedom

As part of Mount Holyoke’s Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Week of Racial Justice and Reconciliation, Jelani Cobb will give a public lecture.

By Christian Feuerstein

Dr. Jelani Cobb will give a lecture on the topic of “The Half-Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America Today” for the Mount Holyoke College commemoration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and as the capstone to the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Week of Racial Justice and Reconciliation

The lecture, on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 4:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.

Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and correspondent for PBS’s “Frontline,”  where he recently co-wrote and hosted “Policing the Police 2020.” Cobb is the author of “Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress,” “The Devil and Dave Chappelle: And Other Essays,” and “Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931–1954.” He is the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University. 

Cobb spoke with Mount Holyoke just two days after a mob of insurrectionists violently breached the Capitol building.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

So, this was an intense week.

Pretty bland and quiet around here. 

Can you place Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol by white supremacist insurrectionists in the context of election-related violence?

Really, the question is, can we take it out of the context of election-related violence because it so closely connects to these themes that we’ve seen before in American history. 

In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” which came out in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the politics of backlash and he was very familiar with it. By 1967, he was looking at really significant headwinds after having achieved the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, after having brought a quarter million people to the March on Washington, after having the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed and the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. He had, by 1967, began to encounter really entrenched opposition on a bigger societal scale.

He looked to history to explain it and talk about how people have been lowered into a false zero-sum idea of progress — that anything that someone else achieves comes at your expense. People’s understanding of their well-being was not in absolute terms — “what do I have” — it was relative — “what do I have that these other people don’t? And if these people have it, my position becomes more tenuous.” It’s a kind of tiered sense of citizenship and King talks about that explicitly.

People have their sense of grievance being cultivated, being catered to, being pandered to. The fact that this bedlam that took place in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday came on the heels, not even 24 hours — barely 12 hours — after a Black pastor and a Jewish son of immigrants were elected as two senators in Georgia. Georgia, which is arguably the cradle of Southern populous politics that would be based on exclusion of those types of groups, representatives of those groups. Understand what the connection between these two things is, and it’s right there for us if we’re willing to look at it. 

Is it possible for Americans to progress without this backlash? What do Americans have to be on guard for? 

It is possible for that to happen, but it requires a level of civic maturity that we haven’t achieved yet. 

Sometimes those things can happen in the context of bigger threats. Famously when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down, the nine justices were aware of the context of the Cold War. One of the reasons they got a nine–zero judgement is that Earl Warren said that for the sake of posterity, there had to be a unanimous decision on Brown and he took the unusual step of lobbying his fellow jurists to get to a unanimous point of view on it. They’re looking over their shoulder, thinking, “If we go the wrong way on this, the Soviet Union is going to make great propaganda value out of it.”

I think that the kind of active idea is that, when you cultivate a sense of having a bigger priority, it makes it easier for those things to happen. But what we’ve seen in the last four years has been when people say “Us, us, us,” they’re not talking about all 338 million people who showed up on the last census. That tribalistic sense of us versus the collective sense of us is what guarantees virtually that you have that kind of backlash.

Speaking of Georgia, its runoff law is a leftover from the Jim Crow era. Now the state is trying to propose stricter absentee voting limits. Would you say this is a case of whose vote counts and a further attempt to disenfranchise voters of color?

It’s totally a question of whose vote counts. I should also point out that it’s not just [the runoff law], there are all these things that are just standard parts of our legal and political landscape that have all of these racial implications, starting with the Electoral College granting the disproportionate amount of political power to southern white states because they held slaves. Louisiana just got rid of a law that allows a person to be convicted with 11 jurors rather than the full 12. Once it became clear that they could no longer have all-white juries, they would symbolically integrate: have one Black person on the jury and then nullify their vote by saying you can throw out the vote of one person.

There are lots of mechanisms like that with all of these various implications of how they actually function, such as the filibuster. Civil rights legislation was one of the reasons why they strengthened the filibuster rule in the 1950s. We have baked in these mechanisms [that create] a kind of tiered citizenship. Their intent becomes more obvious whenever you see a situation where a person who wasn’t intended to be part of the original civic fold is on the verge of making some sort of great achievement.

What advice do you have for Mount Holyoke College students at this fraught juncture of history?    

I always encourage students to root themselves deeply in history. The advantage of being young is that you have lots of energy, lots of idealism, lots of will to do positive things. You haven’t been disappointed in ways that many older people have. One of the key disadvantages is that they don’t necessarily know what they’re walking in on. So I think it’s very important for them to have a sense of where they’re coming in. It’s like walking into the middle of a movie and knowing nothing about what happened in the hour before you got there.

College students have a tremendous advantage in the sense that they have time to read and learn and understand. I think one of the important things — especially at an institution like Mount Holyoke, which is not one of those gigantic sprawling places, it’s where you can actually get to know people — is to find the people who have interests that dovetail with yours, people who will be lifelong friends and allies and supporters of the things that you have to go on to do. That gives you an incentive to interact with as broad a network of people as you can.