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An Evening With Jelani Cobb

by Madison Tyler


On Tuesday evening (Feb. 12), New Yorker staff writer, award-winning journalist, and journalism professor Dr. Jelani Cobb engaged in conversation with Maxwell history professor, Jeffrey Gonda, in Hendrick’s Chapel to discuss race, politics, and journalism as a part of this semester’s University Lectures series.


In a small gathering with Syracuse University students before the lecture, Cobb explained that many of his stances and opinions regarding academia and universities come from the vantage point of his childhood—he grew up in the New York City borough of Queens as the youngest child of four. His mother attained a high school degree, while his father obtained at most a second or third-grade education in Jim Crow-era Georgia. Cobb expressed the sentiment that his parents wanted him to do better than he did.


He went on to get an undergraduate degree in English at Howard University. He has also received his doctorate in American history from Rutgers University. His areas of specialization include post-Civil War African American history, 20th-century American politics, and the history of the Cold War.


Cobb is the author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress and To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic. Previously, he’s been an Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, and he is also the recipient of the 2015 Hillman Award for Opinion and Analysis.


In his lecture, Cobb described his career path as circuitous, saying that he wanted to find a way to be a historian and a journalist. He didn’t know there was a way to do both but, figured out that for him, the history contextualized the journalism he’s interested in and the journalism shows the implications of that history.


Amongst a small group and on stage, Cobb was clever, witty, and sarcastic at times, yet genuine and eloquent.


When Professor Gonda asked about which 2020 Democrat presidential candidate has addressed racial inequality well, Cobb threw some shade. “Buttigieg,” he said. The chapel erupted with laughter.


Throughout the discussion, Cobb talked about the intersection of race, politics, and the current state of journalism. He posited that Joe Biden’s “chumminess with segregationists” is a question of age rather than character. Moreover, he stated that he doesn’t think the calculation that pushing the “racial justice thing” is going to turn off voters is necessarily wrong.


Regarding the current state of journalism, Cobb said, “Bad habits have entered the field, the institution, and they’ve been allowed to proliferate over time.”


As an example, he also pointed out the reluctance of journalists to say we were witnessing a racial backlash to Obama’s presidency in the 2016 election.


When asked what gives him hope for the future, Cobb said, “The struggles behind us are bigger than the struggles in front of us,” reassuring the audience.


During the Q&A, a journalism student asked how Cobb manages all the bad news and shortcomings in our communities.


“I try to fight on my terms,” said Cobb.


Cobb is currently the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University.

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