Days before Dr Jelani Cobb arrives in Sydney to deliver a speech on civil rights in Sydney, President Trump tells a group of progressive congresswomen of colour (dubbed “the Squad”) to “go back” to where they came from. That fact dominates his brief stay in Australia. “It’s really striking how many people in Sydney have asked me about 45’s latest bigotry spree,” he tweets before returning to New York, the day after Honi Soit asked him to comment on the tweets. “As bad as he looks domestically this is a reminder that the entire world is an audience for this abject racist stupidity.”
Dr Cobb is best known to readers as a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker. His work on contemporary American politics largely focuses on race and racism. Cobb is pointed to as one of an ever-shrinking number of writers able to speak honestly about American racism (Cobb notes though, that he admires Adam Serwer’s work at The Atlantic). He is frustrated, for example, that outlets from the New York Times to Fox News label Trump’s fresh round of tweets “racially charged,” not “racist.” “Reporters don’t want to come close to racism. They apply an even-handedness that is inappropriate,” Cobb tells Honi. “They are reflecting a bigger discomfort with the reality of racism, using this language to soften the most outrageous things.”
Though best known for his contemporary political writing, Dr Cobb is originally trained in history. His doctoral thesis, Antidote to Revolution: African-American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, is due for publication soon. Speaking to Honi, Cobb explains that his background as an historian has “deeply influenced” his work as a reporter. “In covering current events, my first move is to look at the roots of it,” Cobb says.
That background distinguishes Cobb’s work from most American political reporting that concerns itself more with tracking political horse races. A piece on R Kelly’s sexual abuse discusses the history of scapegoating and lynching of black men; a piece on Trump’s removals of refugee and immigrant children from their parents draws comparisons to the enslavement of black children; speaking in Sydney, Cobb contextualises Trump’s recent attacks on “the Squad” as part of narratives of selective citizenship used to exclude African Americans since slavery.
Backing any particular Democratic nominee, then, does not seem particularly important for Cobb. Appearing on The Drum, he responds to the host’s assertion that he’s a “fan” of Kamala Harris with a hesitant “eh.” His Twitter bio states simply: “rooting for (almost) anyone black.”
That approach gives Cobb’s work a unique staying power when compared to much other contemporary American political reporting. Cobb’s 2012 book on the Obama presidency – The Substance of Hope – remains relevant following Trump’s election. The book is not a biography, but rather centres on the entrenched oppression and impoverishment many African Americans face, even as a select few succeed. The slew of glowing Obama biographies published at the same time, by comparison, have quickly appeared naïve.
The impression one gets from Dr Cobb’s work, then, is that individual political figures are less important than the political contexts that shape them. He disputes the view that Trump, for example, is a distinctive “aberration” in American politics. “Speaking of Trump as an aberration assumes there is a default to return to,” he says. “Labelling Trump an aberration means you lose track of the factors that allowed him to come to power at all.”
Similarly, his criticisms of the (largely white) Democratic leadership’s persistent attacks on “the Squad” recall Martin Luther King’s criticisms of the “white moderate” as the true barrier to racial liberation. “Their response demonstrates a moral cowardice, an unwillingness to confront the ugliness in which we’re living,” Cobb says. Debates within the Democratic party, such as Joe Biden’s opposition to school bussing as a means to desegregate schools, are “a history and a tension the Democratic party will continue to grapple with.
Weeks after our conversation, Trump makes fresh attacks on “the Squad”, calling them racists. Almost exactly 5 years before, in one of his first pieces for the New Yorker, Cobb writes “[The US] is a nation of self-declared racial innocents, blithely detached from its past and their prejudices […] Innocents recognise no culpability, and thus are blamelessly capable of anything at all.” No one at that time could have envisaged a President Trump, but writers like Cobb have long pointed to America’s willful detachment from its history as the roots of right-wing, racist populism. The inability to speak honestly of that history makes one “naïve as to what it takes to enact change.” Many liberals prefer to view Trump as a brief, implausible, nightmare blinding them, as Cobb says, to the “more radical change is needed to address the roots of American racism.” If America is to no longer be a country of racial innocents, it will need the continued work of Dr Cobb.