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In the fight for racial justice, we must face the past to forge a better future.

New Yorker Staff Writer | Columbia Journalism School Dean | Speaker on race, history, politics and culture in America

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Lavin Exclusive Speaker

Against the backdrop of a renewed push for racial justice, Columbia Journalism School Dean and Peabody Award-winning journalist Jelani Cobb emerges as a clear voice in the fight for a better America. A PBS Frontline correspondent for two critically acclaimed documentaries (Policing the Police and Whose Vote Counts) Jelani explores the enormous complexities of race and inequality, while offering guidance and hope for the future. A long-time writer for The New Yorker, and editor of its recent anthology collection The Matter of Black Lives, Jelani “combines 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” (Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker).

“Exemplary gathering of writings on Black history, arts, politics, and culture in America. . . . An essential volume for readers interested in the Black past and present.” — Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review) on The Matter of Black Lives

Jelani is a staff writer at The New Yorker, writing on race, history, justice, politics, and democracy, as well as Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism and Dean of Columbia Journalism School. He recently co-edited The Matter of Black Lives, a collection of The New Yorker’s most ground-breaking writing on Black history and culture in America, featuring the work of legendary writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Jelani also edited and wrote a new introduction for The Kerner Commission—a historic study of American racism and police violence originally published in 1967—helping to contextualize it for a new generation. The condensed version of the report, called The Essential Kerner Commision Report, is described as an “essential resource for understanding what Jelani calls the ‘chronic national predicament’ of racial unrest” (Publishers Weekly).

During a historic election, Jelani investigated allegations of voter fraud and disenfranchisement as a PSB Frontline correspondent in the documentary Whose Vote Counts, revealing how these unfounded claims entered the political mainstream. He clearly presents how racial inequities, COVID-19, and voter suppression became interlinked crises, contributing to a long legacy of inequality. For tackling one of the key issues at the heart of modern U.S. politics and carefully elucidating what the fight for voting rights looks like in the 21st century, Whose Vote Counts received a Peabody Award. Jelani was also the correspondent for the Frontline documentary Policing the Police, where he examined whether police reform is a viable solution in the wake of mounting protests calling for racial justice, and explored how we can hold police departments accountable. Previously, Jelani was 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.

Jelani is the recipient of the Hillman Prize for opinion and analysis journalism, as well as the Walter Bernstein Award from the Writer’s Guild of America for his investigative work on Policing the Police. He is the author of Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, and To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic. He is also a recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation and the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Journalism Project, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2023. He was appointed the Dean of Columbia Journalism School in 2022.


It went so well! Jelani and our CEO had a great conversation and it felt so organic. The best part was that Jelani was able to cater his amazing knowledge and skill set to our audience. He used lots of amazing terms that helped people who are not so well-versed in social justice or history understand his point. Over 2/3 of our company came out and that's one of the highest-attended events we've had this past year.

Leaf Group

Speech Topics

The Half-Life of FreedomRace and Justice in America Today

Jelani’s riveting, hopeful keynotes are 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—Jelani 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 remind us that the only obstacle holding us back is the comforting illusion that we’ve already achieved our goals. And 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.

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