On Wednesday, Dec. 2, New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb gave a public talk in the CFA Hall titled “Talking About Race with Jelani Cobb” as part of the Allbritton Center for Public Life’s Right Now! panel series.
Cobb is also Associate Professor of History and Director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut and a frequent commentator on issues of race, politics, and history.
The talk, which was attended by about 100 students, faculty, and community members, began with an introduction by Professor of African American Studies Lois Brown. Brown also serves as the Chair of the African American Studies Program; Director of the Center for African American Studies; Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor in the African American Studies Program; Professor of English; and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
She began by acknowledging the role of University President Michael Roth in organizing the event. Roth reached out to Cobb after reading his New Yorker article “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion,” which included points that Roth disagreed with.
“We are here…because of the purposeful intellectual and social commitments of our president, President Roth,” Brown said. “So thank you Michael for leaning in and thinking ahead, to this community conversation tonight.”
Brown then introduced the speaker for the night, saying that Cobb came to conversations with a “historian’s eye.” She concluded her short speech with a call to action.
“Let’s talk about, let’s talk through, but most definitely not around, race,” she said.
When Cobb took the stage, he began by making a statement about the importance of dialogue, and then he considered the historical contexts of policing and African Americans.
“Policing became the most visible element…of the broader system of racial subordination,” Cobb said.
Cobb dived further into history and its implications by discussing the famous film “The Birth of a Nation,” which was released one century ago this year. He shared an idea with director of the film, D.W. Griffith.
“There could be a reconciliation between…the white North and the white South over their common contempt for the Negro,” Cobb said.
Cobb continued by discussing another film by the same director titled “Intolerance.” He explained the purpose of this film and connected it to more current arguments surrounding race.
“It was his effort to criticize the intolerance of the NAACP for imposing on his free speech,” Cobb said.
After framing free speech in the context of American history, he put forth his central question.
“We have civil liberties in an unequal society; how can our freedoms possibly be equal?” Cobb asked. “My main proposition is that in a hierarchical society even our rights and liberties can be used in way that re-enshrines this hierarchy.”
Cobb further explained his assertion by providing historical examples of whites using their civil liberties to defend racism.
“One of the most intractable arguments against emancipation…was the 5th Amendment guarantee of due process of law…by emancipating blacks you would be denying the property rights of whites,” Cobb said.
Cobb encouraged the audience to recognize that there are many instances in American society in which free speech is regulated. He also addressed how this regulation is rarely extended to racial contexts.
“There is some language which is so incendiary, so harmful, and so devoid of any additional value…that a reasonable person can be incited to violence,” he said. “In non-racial contexts we recognize the implications of free speech in ways that that are much more complicated when we add race into the equation.”
He summed up his discussion surrounding free speech directly.
“We use the unassailable value of free speech to avoid difficult conversations about race,” he said.
Next Cobb discussed the article published in September’s issue of The Atlantic magazine titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. He challenged the article by exposing issues that it did not discuss.
“In that entire 8,000 word span there was not a single reference to actual rape that happens on college campuses,” he said. “That women are triggered, they’re really sensitive…but we don’t talk about the reality that rape actually happens on college campuses.”
On the issue of race, too, the article stopped short.
“There’s nothing about actual racism on college campuses,” Cobb said.
Cobb further criticized the way in which some people engaged with race issues and historically oppressed people.
“A person who’s in a category that’s been traditionally marginalized, when you raise a critique, the first thing they raise [is] a question about is your sanity,” he said.
Cobb then shifted the talk to safe spaces, more specifically addressing his opinion of safe spaces.
“I’m not someone who believes in safe spaces. I don’t think they exist, I don’t think there’s a virtue to them,” he said. “I think that the problem with the idea of a safe space is the presumption that…if there is an individual or an institution that does not mean you well, you don’t necessarily benefit by advertising what your weakness are.”
Cobb addressed the controversy around the opinion article previously published in The Argus, “Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think.” First, he discussed what he believes the message of Black Lives Matter (BLM) is.
“One of the criticisms we find is the idea…of black on black violence is a counter point,” he said. “But what Black Lives Matter has actually been saying is that there’s a fundamental devaluation of black lives that has allowed both of those things to happen.”
He further clarified the fundamental problem with centering race discussions on black-on-black violence.
“There’s no moral authority invested in someone who commits crimes in your community, but there is a moral authority invested in people who are there supposedly to protect you,” he said.
Cobb concluded his talk by making another statement about safe spaces.
“These dynamics are intractable, they’re deeply rooted,” Cobb said. “The only safe spaces that we can expect are those we fashion for ourselves and within ourselves.”
After the talk, Roth shared his reaction.
“I thought it was really informative, both about the historical context and the importance of putting the different values we have in relation to one another,” Roth said.
Visiting Professor of African American Studies Clemmie L. Harris also reflected on the talk and expanded on Cobb’s discussion of safe space.
“I also think that the comment about safe spaces is spot-on, because the most important thing is to recognize the power that you have,” Harris said. “When you engage in the behavior that put you in that reactionary mode you can never win that fight, you can never assert any type of agency.”