“It is possible for us to make some sort of change; I just don’t think that we should underestimate how difficult that is going to be.” Jelani Cobb, professor of Journalism at Columbia University and staff writer at the New Yorker, talks with Jonathan Laurence, Reset DOC’ managing director, about the tough road for healing and reconciliation in the US ahead of “The Divided Society After November 3rd” conference.
Mr. Cobb, there is no easy recipe for healing divisions, but are there a few immediate priorities that you think would accomplish reconciliation? Can we speak of reconciliation in this context or is it still too raw?
It’s difficult to have this conversation unless we understand what we mean by healing — sometimes healing is used to mean forgetting or avoidance. The difficult work of building a democratic society, or democratic culture within a society, is like building trust in any other personal relationship. When it’s broken, it can’t be immediately restored. It has to be rebuilt over the course of time. We sometimes rush to say all these wounds have been healed, like when we called ourselves “post-racial” after Obama was elected, and that proved to be false and spectacularly false.
How many months did it take before the beer summit between Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and Sergeant James Crowley?
The beer summit, then birtherism [the conspiracy theory promulgated by Donald Trump that purports that then President Obama was not born in the United States, ed.], then the progenitor of birtherism becoming the next president, and all the traumatic memories people have of that period. One thing that has to happen is an honest accounting of what has gone on, a historical or sociological document, and then a report on what happened within our government.
There are things that are subject to partisan conflict, but having inspector generals to prevent corruption is not one of them. We’ve had lapses that go beyond partisanship. What’s never been partisan is opposition to government misuse and abuse of resources. And then we need a roadmap for what we think democracy actually is and how we’ve strayed from the course, relating to all of our public institutions.
I think we will not be able to commit to figurative ideas until we have gotten down to literal healing. While we still see this pandemic raging and enabled by people’s political alignments and their refusal to believe basic facts of science, we won’t be able to get past that burden.
It’s interesting what you’re saying about accountability, having truth commissions of our own to sift through everything – the mountain of incidents occurring in every agency at the political level. What do you think about bigger institutional remedies? Is it possible to reform the Electoral College or the Supreme Court, or is that something that’s never going to come to an equilibrium?
Well, there’s reason to be skeptical about making big changes to American society. Things can have outstanding public support, but that doesn’t ensure they’ll be secure parts of our government. Our ideas about gun control, background checks, have not impeded people from proceeding to the policies that have enabled mass shootings and violence. Health care, all these things public sentiment favor, have been stymied by our politics. Getting rid of the Electoral College would be titanic in that way. I think all hope is not necessarily lost. There is an initiative working towards a compact with states representing 270 Electoral College votes to say that their electors will go to the popular vote winner. That would obviate the Electoral College.
But I think another thing we are grappling with is the loss of an external enemy that, for most of the 20th Century, defined us. That created an additional unifying force. There were huge conflicts internally during the Cold War, but there was a better idea that States had to be united in the face of some other kind of threat. We don’t have that anymore. So we’ve been kind of left to squabble among ourselves in ways that are unchecked by any kind of bigger sense of reality or conflict.
It is possible for us to make some sort of change; I just don’t think that we should underestimate how difficult that is going to be.
The George Floyd murder feels like so long ago, and the disorder in American cities moved some Americans away from the growing consensus against police brutality, back into this old trope about law and order. Do you think that we’re going to see any type of meaningful reform at the national level from Biden that forbids this type of state violence?
I know, George Floyd has been lost in the rhetoric of all this. The circumstances were so abjectly horrible that it was hard for anyone at the time to counter the idea of police reform. And if you look in the Twin Cities area, you saw lots of indicators that this would happen. There were police departments that were chronically troubled, no intervention, and the problems metastasized until we saw that spectacular abuse of a person’s right to even breathe, the most fundamental thing. That created a particular climate.
I think the incandescent conflict of the presidential race made that go away. The problem is that we will see another incident like that, maybe in the Biden administration, maybe before the transition occurs. But I feel certain that we will see another abjectly terrible situation that will force us to revisit the ideas we had in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
I fear, like mass shootings, it is a lesson that we cannot seem to internalize. Part of the issue is understanding what the appropriate regulatory framework is, but part of it is pride in local government that can seem self-harmful.
The idea of liberty that is being deployed – “liberty is anything that I want to do” – “if I spread a virus that kills people, that’s my right”. Fundamentally, they are advocating the absence of government, because if the government can’t [restrict] that, then it can’t do anything. A government that can’t tell you to wear a mask, cannot tax you, cannot tell you how fast you can drive, and cannot tell you to send your kids to school – it does not have the right to do any of those things.
You get right back to Ruby Ridge [a 1992 shootout and siege between law enforcement and white separatist Randy Weaver who was barricaded in his Idaho cabin, ed].
Right. The irony is the same people tend to be unsympathetic to the idea that the government has overreached in criminal justice.
I had a conversation once where someone was arguing if mass shootings were a gun rights issue. And this white person said to me – as an African American, I don’t think this ever registered – “you understand the government is completely capable of usurping people’s liberty if they don’t have guns.” And I was just looking at them, like, “seriously? I would never, ever expect something like that to happen”.
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