Columbia Professor Jelani Cobb speaks on race relations past, present, and future

On Tuesday, February 7, Doctor Jelani Cobb from Columbia University gave a lecture titled “The Half-Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America”. Cobb, who teaches in Columbia’s School of Journalism and is himself a renowned journalist-author with essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The Progressive among many others, spoke for an hour, followed by a sit-down conversation open to audience questions. His speech covered the history and continual presence of racism in America, beginning with the slave-owning founders, progressing to the American Civil War and the Civil Rights era, and finally ending with the contentious present times, mentioning the Ferguson, Missouri riots, Black Lives Matter, and Presidents Obama and Trump.

Dr. Cobb began with an analogy comparing Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics—just as the former was the model of the universe for hundreds of years, the latter showed, through the theory of relativity, that what scientists thought was exact in their astronomical calculations was “almost there, not quite there.” Einsteinian physics showed how the simple Newtonian theory did not quite work with space and time in practice. Take that and apply it to our American democracy, our Constitution, and our founding, argued Dr. Cobb, and one can discern how the grand ideal does not quite play out nicely in the real world.

“In the blueprint of our democracy,” alleged Dr. Cobb’s thesis, “is a racial hierarchy.” He described how Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave-owner, had deliberately written out any mention of black slaves in the founding documents, undermining the declaration that “all men are created equal.” The states of Maine and Florida were created by the drawing of federal lines for legal-slavery purposes, and Texas was bought and colonized from Mexico using slave labor. Thus, Dr. Cobb argued, from our origins as a nation, racism was “in the DNA of our country.” Our founding, however great we may think it to be as a place free from discrimination of religion, class, and nationality, did not extend its arm over race when put into practice.

Dr. Cobb went on to describe the progress of racial justice in America since then, noting how tensions have risen and fallen over the years. Racial tensions, in his view, have not progressively declined over history, but rather have rapidly oscillated up and down, creating an ever-jagged line, one which hopefully declines more than it rises. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave African-Americans freedom and the right to vote but immediately afterwards gave rise to Jim Crow laws, which again suppressed these communities. The Civil Rights movement was a highlight Dr. Cobb spoke about at length, noting that Martin Luther King’s genius was “wedding the ideas of American beauty and justice to racial integration and equality,” an expounding on Dr. Cobb’s own earlier message. He also mentioned our nation’s history of discriminating against other minorities like the Chinese, the Japanese, the Irish, and Catholics.

But he again revisited the idea that racism, like a virus, “is an evolving issue; permutations are able to adapt and resist, and live on.” Anyone can see how high racial tensions are today, even after a historic Obama presidency which, he claimed, brought these issues to the forefront for our country to confront, even if it did not make relations better. Despite what he referred to as his own depressing and bleak outlook, Dr. Cobb encouraged the audience to remain ever hopeful and optimistic, for this is the only way to move forward successfully and productively. Ending on a happier note, he proceeded to take a few standard questions from the crowd, which filled most of the Jordan Auditorium of the Mendoza School. “Americans,” he quipped, “are inherently optimistic. Despair is the ally of those we’re fighting against.”

John Paul Ferguson is a freshman living in Fisher Hall and is completely obsessed with his PLS major. Jack is a huge fan of literature and film, and loves discussing the musical Les Miserables. Contact him at