Journalist Jelani Cobb: America prefers to treat its history like a résumé

Jelani Cobb

America can’t treat its history like a résumé – hyping the “virtuous” parts while leaving out unflattering parts, Jelani Cobb, dean of Columbia University School of Journalism said Saturday.

Cobb, who is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, made his comment during the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s “Color of Education Summit” in Raleigh. The theme for the Public School Forum’s fifth summit was “A Walk Through History: How the Past Informs the Present.”

“We prefer to have our history served to us in the form of a résumé,” Cobb said. “When you think about it, a résumé, you put everything on there that’s virtuous about you and nothing that is bad.”

In a wide-ranging speech that was equal parts history lesson and call to action, Cobb warned about the clear and present threat to democracy and took on the conservative forces that have rallied around the false notion that critical race theory is taught in elementary schools.

“I’ve yet to meet any elementary school teacher who has taught critical race theory,” Cobb said.

Critical race theory is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. It emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

“Critical race theory had become this thing that had no attachment to any reality,” Cobb said.

Cobb took aim at Republican-led legislatures that have used claims about critical race theory in order to restrict what can be taught in public schools about America’s racial past. They’ve done so, he said, under the guise of protecting white children from learning about the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow law.

He noted the “doll tests” conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. The study showed that most Black children preferred white dolls over Black dolls. Many said the Black dolls were “bad” and the white ones looked most like them.

The study was proof that segregation was psychologically damaging to Black children and must be struck down, Cobb said.

He pointed out the absurdity in claims that white children are harmed by learning about the unsavory parts of America’s history.

“We’ve seen state after state, legislature after legislature, political leader after political leader, stand in front of the podium, pound the podium and advocate for the total ban of critical race theory on the basis of the idea that teaching white children about segregation is psychologically damaging to them,” Cobb said.

We are now living in an “upside down” world, Cobb said, where efforts to alleviate psychological injury to Black children are irrelevant and overshadowed by the “false, absurd and ridiculous” attempt to shield white children from America’s actual history.

Cobb, a Queens New York native, is a Howard University graduate who earned a doctorate in American history at Rutgers University. It took seven years, he said, to earn his undergraduate degree from Howard because he didn’t always have money to pay tuition.

“My father had a third-grade education, I have a Ph.D.,” Cobb said. “I don’t attribute that to being some virtue of mine, I attribute that to the virtue of the people who got into the streets and got hit in the head, who never saw a college campus, to make sure somebody like me could.”

He said cultural shifts and political and economic advancements of Blacks and immigrants have historically led to the kind of blowback from the alt-right that is evident today.

Cobb said that he became acutely aware of how concerted those efforts are while covering the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina where nine Blacks were shot to death by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi, who wrote in his manifesto that he committed the atrocity to galvanize like-minded people.

Overcoming the latest attempt to stunt the progress of Blacks and other people of color and trample democracy requires courage, Cobb said.

“I tell my students that all the people we admire, all of the people that we talk about, all of the people we place on t-shirts, we like them for the things they did in difficult times, not the things they did in easy times,” Cobb said. “We like them for the things they did in moments when most people were afraid.”

Saturday’s event was moderated by WTVD’s Joel Brown, who anchors the ABC affiliates’ 4 p.m. evening edition of Eyewitness News.

Color of Education is a partnership between the Dudley Flood Center for Educational Equity & Opportunity, the Public School Forum of North Carolina, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, and the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public.

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Journalist Jelani Cobb: America prefers to treat its history like a résumé