Journalist Jelani Cobb considers the impact of Obama’s presidency on race in America. Did he make good on the promise of change that got him elected?
As President Obama leaves the White House, the post-mortems on his term and predictions on his legacy are starting to emerge. Particularly, what did Obama do for race politics in America – did he turn out to be the beacon hope liberals saw, or the expensive liability handing out reparations and redistributing power, as some conservatives feared?
How can we chart moral progress? One popular narrative holds that it increases steadily, rising over time. But Jelani Cobb argues it happens in fits and starts, like an EKG line that spikes and falls.
The notion of progress has been met differently throughout history. Technological progress has been, with few exceptions, greeted with open arms in western societies. Moral progress, on the other hand, has advanced through social struggle. At times, the two have intersected, such as when the atomic and hydrogen bombs were created. But more often than not, the expansion of civil rights has come at a social cost, with those who oppose social change on the short end of the democratic stick.
William Jelani Cobb writes about the enormous complexity of race in America. In 2015, he received the Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism for his New Yorker columns, in which he combined "the strengths of an on-the-scene reporter, a public intellectual, a teacher, a vivid writer, a subtle moralist, and an accomplished professional historian."
His articles include "The Anger in Ferguson," "Murders in Charleston," and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations." In awarding him the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, the jury wrote, "No one has done a better job of placing [the events in Ferugson, MO]—and similar happenings in other places like Sanford, Florida, Cleveland, Ohio and Staten Island, New York—in their broader context than Jelani Cobb." Further: "Cobb met the challenge of describing the turmoil in Ferguson in a way that cut through the frantic chaos of 'breaking news' and deepened readers’ understanding of what they were seeing, hearing, and feeling. Ferguson was not an aberration, he showed, but a microcosm of race relations in the United States—organically connected to the complicated legacy of segregation and the unpaid debts of slavery itself. "
Cobb was formerly associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, where he was director of the Africana Studies Institute. He has received Fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations. He is the author of Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, and The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays. His forthcoming book is Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931.