The Substance of Hope
Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress
Against the backdrop of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police sparked a renewed push for racial justice and calls for change. In his recently released documentary Policing the Police 2020, FRONTLINE correspondent and New Yorker staff writer, JELANI COBB examines the enormous complexities and realities of race and policing in America.
“Cobb deconstructs the politics of the civil rights generation in the Obama age with nuance and honesty. A provocative book, from a provocative mind.”— Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Substance of Hope
Jelani Cobb is prominently featured in Ava Duvernay’s 13th, her Oscar-nominated documentary about the current mass incarceration of black Americans, which traces the subject to its historical origins in the Thirteenth Amendment. “13th explodes the ‘mythology of black criminality,’ as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb at one point in the film refers to the successive and successful measures undertaken by political authorities to disempower African Americans over the last three centuries” wrote The Atlantic.
Cobb recently edited and wrote a new introduction for The Kerner Commission—a historic study of American racism and police violence—contextualizing it for a new generation. The original report was a dramatic and shocking government document exploring more than a dozen urban uprisings between 1964 and 1967, and released one month before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assasination. In it, Cobb reveals how these uprisings were used as political fodder by Republicans and demonstrates that this condensed edition of the Report should be essential reading at a moment when protest movements are challenging us to uproot racial injustice.
Cobb is also Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism and a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker, where his writing on race, history, justice, and politics earned him the Hillman Prize for opinion and analysis journalism. 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.
Most recently he edited The Essential Kerner Commission Report, a prescient and woefully neglected government examination of more than a dozen urban uprisings from 1964 to 1967, and co-edited The Matter of Black Lives, a collection of The New Yorker’s most ground-breaking writing on race in America. He is also the recipient of the Walter Bernstein Award from the Writer’s Guild of America for his investigative series Policing the Police, which aired on PBS Frontline. His most recent Frontline documentary, Who’s Vote Counts, explores allegations of voter disenfranchisement and fraud in the 2020 election.
At the 2015 Hillman Prize ceremony, presenter and journalist Hendrik Hertzberg described the work of Jelani Cobb as combining the “rigor and depth of a professional historian with the alertness of a reporter, the liberal passion of an engaged public intellectual and the literary flair of a fine writer.” So it is with Cobb’s riveting, auspicious keynotes: up-to-the-moment meditations and breakdowns of the complex dynamics of race and racism in America. Whether speaking on Black Lives Matter and activism, the battle zones of Ferguson or Baltimore, the legacy of a black presidency, or the implications of the Trump era—or, more generally, on the history of civil rights, violence, and inequality in employment, housing, or incarceration in the US—Cobb speaks with the surety and articulate passion of only our best journalists. His keynotes inspire us to work, tirelessly, toward achieving an ongoing dream of equity—of genuine democracy. They show us that not only are the levers of justice in our hands, but we can move them in the direction we see fit. And they remind us that the only obstacle holding us back is the comforting illusion that we’ve already achieved our goals.