About Race: The Much-Needed Voice of The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb


After recording this week’s episode with Jess Walter and Emma Straub I realized how uncomfortable and nervous I was talking about race on the show. The topic came up because Jess is from Spokane, Washington, the same town as Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who lied about her race and heritage.

Last week there was also the sickening act of terrorism in Charleston, where nine black churchgoers were killed in cold blood. The universal reaction has been outrage and grief and I felt deeply troubled by what had happened.

I have also noticed that I feel utterly ill-equipped to have a conversation about the extent to which race underpins the fabric of American society. Maybe it’s because I grew up in another country, Australia? After all, what do I know about America? Then I ask myself ‘is that just an excuse?’  (It must be noted that Australians have their own awful history of racist violence and behavior.)

I have been reading the papers and searching online for someone to help guide me through, to help me understand the nuances and complications associated with race in America. I am so relieved to say that I have found him – writer Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.” He’s an associate professor of history, and the director of the Africana Studies Institute, at the University of Connecticut. He also won the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, for his columns on race, the police, and injustice.

I urge you to read his work. We all need to be engaged and educated in this issue, most of all me. All of these pieces have appeared in The New Yorker in print or online:

Equality and the Confederate Flag – The Confederate flag is not the only symbol valorizing the racially horrific past; it is simply the most obvious.

Terrorism in Charleston – What happened was more than a hate crime.

Murders in Charleston – In Charleston, the existential question of who is black has been answered in the most concussive and horrific way possible.

Black Like Her – What makes Rachel Dolezal’s deception so complicated.

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Follow him on Twitter @jelani9