Jelani Cobb on Race, Populism, and Politics

April 17—Jelani Cobb, A.M. Rosenthal Writer-in-Residence at the Shorenstein Center and staff writer for The New Yorker, discussed the influence of history on current events, changing demographics in the U.S., the media’s coverage of racial issues, and more during a talk at the Center. Below are some highlights from his conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, with the full audio to be posted soon.

Understanding today’s populism through the lens of the past

“A lot of times, I think we use the word populism in an attempt to be euphemistic, because we were seeing racism, xenophobia, nativism, this really delusional, conspiratorial thinking—and so the polite way of expressing that was just to say, ‘oh this is populism’—until we actually get into what the history of populism has looked like in this country. A very wide swath of it has been racist, nativist, xenophobic, and susceptible to really bizarre, conspiratorial analyses of the world…I was looking at the populist movements that arose in  the late 19th century in the South and the ways in which they had a really striking degree of interracial cooperation and suspicion of economic forces in a way that would be familiar to people on the liberal, left side of the political equation now. And then, just around the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, those movements collapsed and what emerged was a kind of uniform negrophobia and a very aggressive white nationalist version of populism that connects to much of what we’ve seen now.”

Queens, New York as a bellwether of demographic change

“I don’t think we can overstate the importance of Trump being from Queens in the narrative that we’ve seen play out. [Queens] is statistically the most diverse county in the United States…this is all a product of the 1965 Immigration Act. Queens was one of the first places that witnessed the transformation that would become a fact of American immigration over the ensuing years and decades. But prior to that, Queens had been the second whitest borough in New York City. The Queens that I grew up in was enormously diverse. The Queens that Trump grew up in was overwhelmingly white and then became enormously diverse. So the language of nativism, the language of fear, of xenophobia…that is all part of the narrative that we’re looking at in recent American politics. For Trump’s generation [of] white Queens residents, many of them never got over seeing the rapid diversification of the county, the way that many people are now alarmed about the diversification of the country.”

Political representation and diversity

“People say look at where the country is going, white people will be a minority soon and so we’ll have to have more democracy. And I’ve been like, when have you ever seen people who have a shrinking market share become more generous? As a matter of fact, the exact opposite is what tends to happen…the report that the Reflective Democracy Campaign did two years ago [found that] whites, who are 63 percent of the population, hold 91 percent of the elected offices in the United States. That’s all the elected offices, from president down to local school board…37 percent of the population is squeezed into 9 percent of the elected offices. There’s no reason to presume that we will automatically see a change in that allotment simply based upon shifting demography. You could wind up with something that looks more like pre-Mandela South Africa…Going back to the historical part of it, South Carolina and Mississippi were states that had white minorities, had majority black populations, and it created the exact kind of rigorous adherence to the codes of white supremacy that you would expect in a place where the empowered class is in the minority.

Charleston, Charlottesville, and violent rhetoric

“Roof did what he did—murdering nine people in the sanctuary of their church—for propaganda purposes. He was trying to encourage white people to recognize that they were being taken advantage of, and that they were being put in a subordinate position…the fact that there was not a clear delineation of white over black as there had been in South Carolina’s history previously was what was disturbing to him, and he wanted the reassertion of that.”

“When I saw Charlottesville happen, and the mass mobilization of people under this banner—armies of whiteness that we’ve seen before in American history—it was like a response. Roof was a call and what happened [in Charlottesville] was a response. Much of what we saw electorally was a response. I went to some of those Trump rallies. The reaction that people had—this is not about economic anxiety. This is about something else. I’m not implying a causal relationship…Roof said that he was killing these people because he wanted to protect white women from black rapists. Donald Trump notably and outrageously said that he was running in part because of all of the Mexican rapists in the country. I don’t think Trump saying that caused Roof to do what he did; Roof had been scouting out the church before that. But they were responding to the same, particular historical dynamic.”

The media’s reluctance to call out racism

There should be a bar, because what we have now is that it’s impossible for you to do anything that actually qualifies as being racist. It might be ‘controversial’ or ‘racially charged’—what does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything.

“There should be a bar, because what we have now is that it’s impossible for you to do anything that actually qualifies as being racist. It might be ‘controversial’ or ‘racially charged’—what does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything. We tend to, I think for commercial reasons, fall back on this comfortable language that, really, no decent writing teacher would allow in their class. Even things like ‘race relations’—what are those? We have a relative presence or absence of racism. I don’t know what ‘race relations’ are, unless it’s a convenient way of avoiding this question of the political potency of racism in any particular point in time.”

“On the one hand you have seen, I think, a much more overt stance in terms of willingness to call a spade a spade. On the other hand, The New York Times also published the Nazi next door piece, which was obscene in its evenhandedness. We don’t see that much of it now, but there was a six-month period after the election where there seemed to be a directive from all the editorial offices in the country to redeem the Trump voter, to prove that they weren’t racist, even though analyses of data have pointed out that Trump’s xenophobia and nativism were not exceptions, they were things that appealed to people…I think generally speaking, there’s still not a willingness to confront that.”

On defending democracy

“The reason why I’m less pessimistic than I may sound at the outset is that I am also cognizant of people’s capacities to defend the democratic ideal of human rights, or the ideal of human dignity, against systems that are set up for the opposite effect. I still believe in human courage and the decency of human beings, even in the context of the horrible political moment…I think we’ve seen a lot of that.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Henske.