Frailty of Democracy

Columbia Professor Jelani Cobb Speaks as 2021 Robinson DEI Speaker


Photo credit: Jacob Boxerman

2021 D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker Dr. Jelani Cobb gives his talk via Zoom.

Jelani Cobb, this year’s 4th annual D’Rita and Robbie Robinson Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Speaker, spoke on “race, civics and education” and the fragility of democracy in the United States via Zoom to an audience of nearly 100 attendees on Monday, November 1.

Cobb is the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University. He is a long-time contributor to and staff writer for “The New Yorker,” where he writes about “race, politics, history, and culture,” according to his “The New Yorker” biography. Cobb holds a Ph.D. in American History, and contributes frequently to outlets such as National Public Radio, CNN, Ebony, and The Washington Post.

Cobb has edited, published, and contributed to a number of works, including his books “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress,” and “To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic.” He was awarded the Hillman Prize for opinion and analysis journalism and the Walter Bernstein award from the Writers Guild of America.

If we are trying to find undemocratic and rigged elections, we don’t have to go back far — a little over a half century … every election in the United States prior to 1965 was illegitimate.”

— Jelani Cobb

After speaking about his personal connections to Chicago, Cobb offered a historical perspective on voting rights in America through the lens of the 2020 Presidential Election. “If we are trying to find undemocratic and rigged elections, we don’t have to go back far — a little over a half century,” Cobb said. “Every election in the United States prior to 1965 was illegitimate.”

“This seems like a huge and maybe wildly ignorant claim. But let’s think about it for a moment,” Cobb said. He continued, explaining that prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the votes of African Americans were suppressed with intimidation and violence. “In 1964, we don’t really know what the Presidential returns would have looked like, because significant portions of the population in the South were prohibited from voting.”

African Americans, while 14% of the total population at the time, made up great proportions of the population in Southern states, such as a third of Georgia, and more than 40% in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

“We’ve had presidential elections, and certified results from states, in which four out of 10 eligible voters had been violently and physically intimidated, and who could not cast a ballot without risking their lives,” Cobb said.

Cobb offered a new perspective on the three-fifths compromise, which counted African Americans as three-fifths of a citizen. Pre-1870, this meant that, Cobb said, white people were given “excess political power” — more than 50% more powerful as they otherwise would have been.

The issue extends to women and other minority groups like Native Americans.  “If we go back to 1920, the nation becomes even less democratic, because women can’t vote prior to the 19th amendment,” Cobb said.

After offering a historical perspective and background for the calls for recounts and “uproar and concern about the theft of an election,” in 2020, Cobb said the claims were “a kind of projection. Based upon American history, we know that it is far, far less likely that empowered white men will be denied the right to vote than people of color would be.”

Claims of voter fraud during the 2020 President Election were often centered in places with high African American populations, such as Fulton County, Georgia (the county where Atlanta is), as were voter suppression efforts.

We can find echoes of our current concerns in previous history, again, and again, and again.”

— Jelani Cobb

Cobb continued looking at history to explain and inform the present: “we can find echoes of our current concerns in previous history, again, and again, and again” Cobb said. He offered examples and parallels ranging from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and recent fears of illegal immigration from the United States’ southern border to the surveillance of Jews and suspected Communists in the 1940s to recent worries of surveillance.

Before finishing with a personal story from his home of Queens, New York City, N.Y., Cobb said that he “raised all these points, not to make any aspersion of American society, not, as some critics have said, tear the country down, … but rather to point out the frailty of American democracy … and the idea of ‘We the People.’”

Principal Dan Frank and Assistant Principal Priyanka Rupani, along with D’Rita and Robbie Robinson, selected Cobb as this year’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Speaker. “

Upper School history teacher Susan Elliott, who was familiar with Cobb’s work, attended the talk. “I was really looking forward to seeing him and he definitely did not disappoint,” Elliott said. “His work is super, super rigorous. I think he takes a very creative approach. I was really, really excited about it.”

Elliott said that Cobb, “from my perspective, as a teacher, gave me a lot of things to think about,” in particular his discussion of the January 6 Insurrection.

In the questions and answers period Cobb offered a “thank you” to any teachers in the audience, saying that he tries to “empower teachers to talk about what their students need, and how other people can help the teachers meet their needs.”

“As a country, we’re really having a very serious reckoning with education and teachers are on the front line — history teachers specifically — are on the front line of this issue,” Cobb said.

To Cobb’s thank you was attached a recognition of the importance of freedom and truth in education: “We’re seeing freedom of speech be trampled … This is bad for a number of reasons,” Cobb said. “But the most crucial reason is that the noblest function of history is to observe the past as a means of not replicating its mistakes in the present in the future.”

Elliott, who is connected with teachers across the country through the College Board, is familiar with the struggle Cobb is referring to. “They’re all saying the same thing: that it’s nightmarish to deal with all the restrictions that are being put on them because of this fear of critical race theory,” Elliott said.

Cobb ended his talk by reemphasizing the importance of critically analyzing the past to inform the present and shape the future through “genuine democracy” and education.

“By ignoring history, we only make ourselves more susceptible to the dynamics that allowed it to take place in the first place. Our objective has to be nothing less than educating and raising a generation of Americans who are prepared to grapple with the creation of genuine democracy in the United States.”