New Yorker writer warns of rising U.S. fascism

Says simmering movement has ‘come to a boil’ with Obama’s presidency

Jalani Cobb
Jalani Cobb (Charles Hallman

Modern fascism exists today in America, declared Columbia University Journalism Professor Jelani Cobb. A “new American fascist movement” arose shortly after the 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, and Donald Trump’s rise eight years later through the GOP ranks to presidential candidate “isn’t an overnight sensation,” he noted.

Cobb was in town last week as part of the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship Series at Macalester in recognition of the longtime history professor’s scholarly and community work of bringing in “distinguished scholars” to engage with students, faculty and community. Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a regular political commentator on cable news shows. He spoke to over 100 Black male students from area colleges and universities on November 4 as part of a two-day 2016 Kente Summit for Black Collegiate Men at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Cobb said the many characteristics of fascism includes a reliance on police — “law and order” — to keep peace, especially among margainized communities, something Trump stressed during his campaign, explained the professor. “Some say fascism is not the best word to use to describe what ‘Trumpism’ is. But I think it’s close enough to be concerned about.”

The professor furthermore noted that this movement has been simmering for some time but came to a boil after the 2008 presidential election when some Americans believed that the country was being taken away from them. “People see the world the way they want to see it.

(l-r) Cory Kemp, Bisrat Bayou, Jelani Cobb, Travis Simmons and Mayser Muhammad
(l-r) Cory Kemp, Bisrat Bayou, Jelani Cobb, Travis Simmons and Mayser Muhammad (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“It is a cognitive bias,” he explained. “If you are a person who believes in a certain type of entitlement and you are a person with advantages, having to move from a position of advantages to a society of equity…is a step down.

“This was the southern victimhood [notion]… They were wronged by the Emancipation [Proclamation in 1865],” continued Cobb. He argued that Black people have been used as racial pawns throughout this country’s history, beginning with the Founding Fathers, who first called the African slave trade “immoral…a trafficking of human beings.”

But that never made the final version of the U.S. Constitution, Cobb disclosed. “It was never intended for us [Blacks] to exist as citizens or exert influence in culture and in politics, or be represented in the White House.”

Fast forward to over a century later: “We have to understand that the election of Barack Obama was going to bring with it” an unknown but eventual backlash, stated Cobb. “We cannot escape race and its implications and the physical makeup of this country.

“We have an unequal scale in how we measure racial progress. There’s been a moment of progress, then a moment of backlash. Progress in this country is like an EKG: We see peaks [that are] then followed by valleys.”

Cobbs, a recipient of both a 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and an Analysis Journalism Award for his columns on race, the police and injustice, reminded the audience, “We are just about [at] the one-year anniversary of the death of Jamal Clark. I’ve been in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Staten Island. I’ve been in many flashpoints that have defined the narrative…of the same question of race and policing, and a fundamental level of questioning democracy itself, and who it applies to and who it does not.”

During a Q&A, someone asked if Blacks and other people of color should be afraid of police. “My earliest encounter with police was as a 13-year-old coming home from baseball practice,” recalled Cobb. “A police officer grabbed me and threw me against a mailbox, searching me and saying I looked like someone who committed a crime. That was my introduction to the police.

“Now I am a 47-year-old man, professional and a doctorate, but when I see the police, do I think about the moment when I was 13? I don’t think only that, but yes, that’s in the back of my mind.

“I think it makes sense to be cautious around police,” Cobb continued. “I wouldn’t say that fear is the best reaction… Caution is probably the best approach in staying alive as opposed to outright fear.”

Cobb pointed out that he is often accused in emails and on social media of being a racist for his columns. “They say I am obsessed with race because I write about it and talk about it. I don’t feel bad about it,” Cobb admitted. He said he would rather write about other topics, but he feels a “moral compulsion on what is going on here.”

Cobb publicly thanked El-Kati, who was in the audience, for “blazing the trail” for him and other Black academia. He implored the young men to “have some relationship with the community” while in college.

 

“I think it is important to give back while you do your own self-development,” said Cobb to the students. “[When] you take your classes seriously and perform to the best of your ability, it is not only an investment in yourself but also an investment to your community and a return on investment to those who made it possible.”

“He [Cobb] made an emotional connection to me,” said Gustavus Adolphus College sophomore Brandon Muganga after the event.

Wako Wako, St. Thomas sophomore: “The speaker was very enlightening on the things that are going on today in America. He gave us a background in history that I am missing that helped me put things in perspective.”

“He knew what he was talking about, and could back up everything he was saying,” added Tavier Simmons, a junior at St. Thomas.

Cory Kemp, a St. Thomas senior, said he liked how Cobb uniquely tied together both American history and Black history. “Everything that happened in African American history is related to American history.”

“He did a really good job explaining racism and how it is affecting us as African American youth and Americans in general,” noted St. Thomas sophomore Sylvester Nwoswji.

Bisrat Bayou, a St. Thomas sophomore, said he learned a lot about modern fascism from Cobb and appreciated his “realness,” adding, “I’m always looking forward to getting informed on political standpoints.”

After speaking with the audience, Cobb told the MSR, “I think it’s important to recognize a dire point in our history in this country.” When he speaks at events, “I always try to impress [upon people] ways to enlighten us with the challenges we confront… Race is central to the United States.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.