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Uprooting Inequality

A Conversation with Jelani Cobb

Jelani Cobb is an award-winning writer for The New Yorker on issues of race, history, justice, and politics. He currently is a part of the Westminster Town Hall Forum’s series, “The Arc Toward Justice: Taking Stock One Year After George Floyd’s Death,” which is sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation. In this episode, Chanda and Jelani talk about the adultification of Black children, the calculated risks Black people need to consider when interacting with police, and what needs to happen to create meaningful police reform.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:00 

Thank you to Target for sponsoring this episode. Target is committed to using their size, scale and resources to help heal and create lasting change in Minneapolis and across the country. Up next, Jelani Cobb is an award winning writer for The New Yorker on issues of race, history, justice, and politics. He also teaches Journalism Ethics. As a professor of Columbia Journalism School, he describes the worst and laziest kind of journalism, and how problematic that can be. He shares with us he’s had enough of a survey that he can start making comparisons of similar cases like George Floyd’s or Daunte Wright’s death. Our hosts, Chanda also brings light to the importance of discussing women, and particularly black daughters and their encounters that they’re likely to have with police. And lastly, you’ll hear personal stories of having to make quick calculations, before they consider interacting with police, afraid that an innocent black man who was trying to help could potentially die in the hands of police. Was that heavy? These are the hard and gritty conversations that needed to be had. Well, let’s get right into it. 

Jelani Cobb  01:32 

I always go back to a day when I was 13 and so and I was coming from a baseball game, I played, literally, and I had a bat, a glove, a uniform on, and the two police officers pulled up and said that I fit a description with someone and searched me, and when you think about, like baseball, literally, like, supposedly the most American thing you can do, and this adolescent, and you know, I’m up against a mailbox being frisked by this cop, and I think that never left me like that feeling, never left me, and you have, like subsequent interactions that have only kind of confirmed that, and I’m 6’3. I stopped growing when I was 15. So I was six foot three inch 15 year old, which meant that I tended to be treated like an adult, early on, the kind of adult application of black boys and the implications of that, and law enforcement, you know, which I’m familiar with, and, you know, one other time when I was a student, by this point at Howard University, and there was a narrow sidewalk, you know, near the campus, we’re walking as a group of us, two of us on the sidewalk, and two of us are walking along the curb because there’s not enough space for all of us on the sidewalk, and a police officer pulled over and got out with his hand on his gun and said best to get the F on the sidewalk, and, like those kinds of interactions, I just knew that my white peers were not having, you know, that this was something that was crucial, even the conversation before, like now we know that we call it the talk. With my parents, you know, we’re having a conversation before it was termed as that about how to handle the police and you know how to interact, and, you know, my father told me once, to never take anything from a police officer, never allow them to hand you anything, and it was like, you’ll keep your hands at your sides at all times, and I was like, why he was like, because they hand you something your fingerprints are now on it, and so, you know, that kind of framing, you know, meant that I had a perspective, when we started seeing things like Eleanor Bumpurs, who was a 70 year old woman who was killed by New York City Housing police in 1986 or so, and, you know, they claim that she had assaulted them and they shot her with a shotgun, and, you know, all that kind of cascade of circumstances after that, and so, my career in writing about these things has been an outgrowth of those personal experiences. 

Chanda Smith Baker  04:45 

When I thought about the young people that witnessed George Floyd’s death, I’ve reflected on some of my experiences, which I’ve had several very negative experiences with police directly. I also have four sons and a daughter and so the collection of stories that we have in our family, when I start taking them off just makes me ill, and then there’s a piece of me that’s just very thankful that we all made it through. When I think about Darnella Frazier and her nine year old cousin, and the young people that witnessed George Floyd’s murder, either right there on Chicago Avenue, or the many that have witnessed it on that video, I have often thought how is this shaping their future, and what responsibility do we have to interrupt and to support them in turning that hopefully into activism? 

Jelani Cobb  05:53 

Yeah. I feel conflicted about that, because on the one hand, we saw, you know, what, George Floyd’s death did, you know it changed the entire conversation, and, you know, that terrible thing, you know, if his daughter saying, you know, that her father would change the world, he did, but in a way that nobody ever would want to change the world, you know, and the video, and you know, I teach Journalism and Journalism Ethics, and so the video is problematic to me, even though  it’s easy availability, has had this galvanizing effect on these activist movements. It’s created a generation of activists, it’s going to be a shorthand, we don’t even know what the implications of this video will be, because one of the things that I did, you know, when my various interviews, you know, that I’ve done and this the historical stuff, is just how many of the prominent people of the boomer generation was shaped by the picture of Emmett Till, you know, where Muhammad Ali, you know, talking about seeing it as a child and being shaken by it, Angela Davis talked about it. You are going to go through this whole litany of people, that generation, who will all, even to this day, you know, when I was talking with Lonnie Bunch, who’s the director of the Smithsonian, he talked about when he saw the Emmett Till image, and they all were shaped by that in ways that drove them to address the circumstances that lead to Emmett Till being killed, and I think that hundreds or thousands of young people are going to do that as a result of seeing George Floyd’s death, and at the same time there’s this principle in photography and photojournalism that we are most comfortable showing the suffering of people who are least connected to us, and so if Derek Chauvin had kept his knee on the throat of 125, pound blonde, white woman until she died, we never would have seen that video. You know, we, or if it did, it would have been blurred, or they would have taken steps to preserve the dignity and humanity of that person, but it’s like in Vietnam, the famous Vietnamese famous picture of the Vietnamese young man being shot in the head, and you can see the bullet kind of coming out of the other side of his head, we would never have shown that video, if it were, never shown that image rather if it had been a Vietnamese soldier shooting an American in the head like that, a white American in the head, and so even as a video of George Floyd’s death, ignited this whole movement, the mere fact that we saw the video confirmed that he was somebody whose humanity had been in question in the first place. 

Chanda Smith Baker  09:11 

Yeah, it’s so emotional. I you know, my youngest son, when the verdict came out, he was upstairs in our house, and I called him down to come watch it, and he wouldn’t come down and you know, I was getting ready to be mom, like, come down here and watch this. This is a historical moment, and there was a piece of me that says no, he needs to do this his way. He needs to do this his way, because I’ve realized that he did see George Floyd’s humanity, and he sees it reflected in himself, and he’s wrestling with these different messages and I’m doing my very best. I don’t know how you erase it time after time, you know, Mike Brown and Tamil Rice and you know Daunte Wright, when I think about Daunte, I think about what happened to Oscar Grant. Do you think they’re similar cases. 

Jelani Cobb  10:06 

 You know, the thing is, the bad thing is that you now have enough of a survey that you can start making comparisons. So, you know, George Floyd’s death was like Eric Garner’s, you know, these are both men who were complaining, they couldn’t breathe, and they died subsequent to the police actions. Daunte Wright’s death was like Oscar Grant’s, because these are both people instances in which the police officer said that they were going for the taser, but actually went for their gun, and you kind of, we start drawing similarities across place and time to these incidents precisely because there are so many of them, and I think that, in itself is kind of numbing, and it makes it hard to grapple with this, and also the fact that there is no sign of any decrease. There’s no sign. I mean, I have been for 10 years almost writing about these, the first thing that I wrote about for the New Yorker was about Trayvon Martin, and that was in 2012, you know, it’s 2021, and if I sat down at my computer right now, and said that was going to write about one of these cases, I would have six or seven of them to choose from. 

Chanda Smith Baker  11:31 

For you touched on the media and showing humanity, you know, I’ve seen a bit of an evolution, at least in my own town in Minneapolis in terms of how the media covered this case, and it felt like it evolved even over the year, and then certainly, even after the verdict, where people showed where the media showed the press release, that immediately came out, following George Floyd’s death that said it was a medical incident, and, you know, I feel like they’re questioning things in a different way. Do you  think that media will evolve to show these stories in a different way? Do you think it will stay?  

Jelani Cobb  12:13 

Yes, but slowly. So my students in Columbia Journalism School are very clear about this, and we also, you know, this is part of what comes up in their classes, where, like, the worst, laziest kind of journalism just presumes that the police version of the story is the accurate version of the story, and they’re kind of baked in reasons why people do that. One of which is that everyone is always pressed for time, you’re always writing something that’s under the gun or broadcasting something, that’s under the gun, you have five minutes to get the story together. It’s easier to get the police report. The police department has a public information officer, they’ll make it easy for you, they have a vested interest in getting their version of the story out there, and then finding the the alternate versions of this story involve tracking down community members. It’s like, Oh, you know, someone saw, well, I only know his nickname, I don’t know his real name, or, you know, I can just tell you, he lives on the north side of town, which is gigantic, you know, like you can’t track that person down, and so becomes easier, and that just is not justifiable, but that’s how you wind up with a kind of lazy journalism, that takes the official bureaucratic response as the the the truthful one. The fact that George Floyd’s medical, I mean, police report, listed a medical incident but did not at all list the fact that he was killed he was murdered, is evidence of that. If you go back through multiple reports, you can find those kinds of disparities. There’s a case in New York City where guards at a prison watched for 15 minutes while man hung in his cell, and he died, and then they wrote a just wrote a fake report, a false report, saying that they didn’t see and they didn’t know, and so those sorts of things are, you know, are endemic in journalism. I think people have begun to see, in a broader sense, why that’s problematic, but other reason, the reason why I’m a little bit skeptical is that, you know, the kind of institutions that media draw upon that kind of institution that media tends to be is very much middle class, middle aged, white and male, and still to this day, and it’s from the vantage point of people who fall into that demographic, if you think that it’s reasonable, or as I said to an editor once, you know, when we were talking about the number of alarming things that had happened, you know, right after the last presidential election, I said that, you know, if you’re someone who for whom the institutions in this country have generally worked, you’re a disadvantage covering instances in which those institutions have generally failed, but there are a whole lot of people who are living in a world where the institutions have generally not functioned as they were supposed to, and so you can’t tell their stories, at least not presuming that you have some sort of insight. and so the ability of media to listen and give credibility and recognize the humanity of people in these different positions, that’s still something that there’s a steep learning curve for. 

Chanda Smith Baker  15:51 

Yeah, the other thing that you touched on is the talk, and I mentioned that I also have a daughter, and you often hear people say, I have to give my sons the talk. Well, how old were you, when you had to have the talk, and I think there were two ah-ha’s that I’ve had of late, one is that I didn’t give my daughter the talk, and, and I feel some sort of way about that, while I’m looking at these stories of these young women that are getting killed, and involved in deadly incidents with police, and then I think the second one is my talk only involved the initial engagement, I did not talk to them about if they happen to take you down there, keep your mouth close, right, like just the rules, after which I got I had a chance to talk to you, Yusef Salaam after when they see us come out, and looking at the young man and how it will today portrayed, so the interrogation, which I know was, was summarized the actual tear that those young men experience, and so when I look at, sort, of all the ways in which parents are trying to protect from a system that is here to protect us, I just want to just give room because we often talk about black men and black boys, but what are your sort of insights on what’s happening right now with the young women? 

Jelani Cobb  17:14 

I mean, it’s very funny, because, you know, we look at this, and all of our communities affected by all of these things. You know, when we talk about assessing, we talk about these disparities, as a breakdown along gender, that for all of these young men, who’ve been killed, their wives, their daughters, their mothers, their sisters, you know, we don’t have that kind of isolated situation for these young women who are killed, you know, their brothers, their fathers, their boyfriends, sons, etc. Like, we don’t have a kind of neat distinction. and we just say, for all the disparities, so the maternal mortality disparity that affects a whole lot of black men, because, you know, their fathers, the children that no longer have mothers, that and so we can’t parse that out, but it is important that we talk, you know, to our daughters about the kind of encounters that they’re likely to have with police for the reason that you pointed out and for another reason, which is disturbing, but true, which is that there is a not insignificant amount of sexual assault, that is happening with women at the hands of law enforcement officers. It’s not something that’s written a whole lot about, it’s not something that’s examined a lot, but it does happen, and it’s something that people need to be aware of, and need to be having much more dialogue about, and so there’s that part of it, and I also think that you know, my daughter we had, my daughter is 20 or soon, next week, actually, two weeks will be 29, and so we had an incident once where we were, we went for a long walk, we were coming back, this is in Manhattan, we witnessed a couple both African American maybe in their early 20s, the young man was behaving in a very agitated way I thought he was about to, to harm the woman, and that’s a calculation, you know, do I intervene, do I not, like making all kinds of like judgments. I’m looking to see if he has a weapon, this is summer, so he has on summer clothes. So it’s like not very many places that you can hide a weapon, and so I make the calculation decide that I’m going to intervene. When he’s not responding to me, I told my daughter to call the police, and that was the calculation to because now and I’m thinking I don’t want this young man to harm this young woman. My daughter didn’t call the police She did not call the police, and, you know, the bus driver who saw the situation got out, and the two of us, he was an African American man who’s maybe in his late 50s. The two of us talk, some sense or something approaching sense into this young man’s head, and I turned around and told the young lady like, you know, if you have like something do you need like to get away from him, we can walk with you or whatever, you know, we kind of resolve the situation among ourselves, and see, my daughter said that she was worried that if she called the police, the police would come and shoot me. That is not a calculation that most people have to make. Black people have to make this situation where even if you are trying to prohibit someone from harming someone else, you may be subject because I’m there because I’m a large man, because I’m trying to intervene, the police may just come out and start shooting. 

Chanda Smith Baker  21:02 

Yeah, I actually have a similar story that I may have shared this before in the podcast, but when I was younger, I thought someone was breaking into my house, and so I was there, my husband and my kids, and I call 911, and I don’t feel comfortable, so I called my daddy, and he lived around the block. I called my dad, dad, I think someone’s in the house, can you come get me? Come get me, Dad. So my dad runs around the block. There was nobody thankfully in the house, but we had called the police. So I come out, I see my parents coming. So my dad is running around the block. My mom is screaming at me. Why would you do that? Why would you put your dad’s life in danger, and I went like a whirlwind. I couldn’t figure out what she was mad at. She was so mad at me. You are gonna put, you could have got your dad killed. She was no longer worried about who’s in my house. She saw me. She’s like the police are coming, and they’re gonna see him running down the street and they’re going to shoot and kill him. Right? Yeah, I didn’t make, I don’t know what I mean, obviously, it turned out okay, but I mean the calculations in an instant that we, in community, have to make that I’m not sure. I think that our community of Minneapolis and Minnesota are becoming more open to understanding that their reality is not everyone’s reality. 

Jelani Cobb  22:29 

That’s right, and also, I think that one of the problems has been credibility, that, like the kind of gaslighting that comes with that idea that we’ve been making this up all along, and it takes something extreme, and absurd and disgusting, you know, horrifying for people to go, oh, well, maybe there was some truth to this. Even as some people still gonna say that this is an anomaly, this is kind of an exception, but there’s so many stories that and order, my reaction to the reaction to the film, to the video was irritation, because it was kind of like, why did it take this much for people to actually believe that we might have been telling the truth about what our relationship has been to law enforcement follow this time, and one of the other things, just kind of a tangent to this is like, there’s always whenever you bring this up, there’s always the elbow, what about black on black crime, which is a weird kind of thing to ask, but it’s an odd kind of thing, because nobody ever asked about the relative rates of white homicide, which are astoundingly high compared to white people and other Western nations, but you know, the white people United States are pretty violent lot, as compared to these other groups. No one ever brings up that fact, when there’s an issue of community concern that affects mostly by people, you know, it’s always granted that you have a basis or reason, or standing to be able to say that you you have this particular concern, and you know, whatever happens and other people who happen to share your skin color has no bearing on your specific concern, but with black people, we’re not people, we’re a sociological category, and so it’s like, well, what about this, you know, what about that, you know. It’s like, if White people are upset about the tax rate, I’m going, what about skin cancer, you know, it’s like, these things have nothing to do with what we’re talking about, and so there’s, there’s that kind of dynamic to it, and finally, I think that one of the things with policing is it because we have such a fraught, difficult, untrusting relationship with law enforcement, it actually aids and abets the other kinds of violence that happen in our communities, that people know that nobody trusts the police, but if they commit a crime, people will be hesitant to call the police, that the people have that the police don’t have the kinds of networks of connections that can help them track down suspects, and so in that way, the police violence actually exacerbates the other kinds of community violence that we have to deal with. 


Chanda Smith Baker  25:24 

Yeah, I have like maybe two other questions, and one is that in your interview with the Westminster Town Hall, Tim asked you about the caste system, and as he asked the question, I was thinking, you know, do you think that the police actually uphold the caste system, which is a little bit of a different framing than how he asked the question, but when I think about because you guys touched on housing a little bit, and I had opportunity to interview Richard Rothstein from The Color of Law, last week in a chapter on, you know, a government sanctioned violence, particularly related to housing when black families are moving to the suburbs, and the police were coming in, and not doing anything about, you know, the crosses burning and all of that other stuff, so do you think policing has upheld a caste system that has become par for the course in a way that we don’t recognize it, or haven’t recognized yet? 


Jelani Cobb  26:21 

Sure. I mean, policing has been the kind of spear’s tip of maintaining the kind of disparities, but the reason I think that we get so exorcise about policing is that it’s the least subtle way of maintaining the caste system, you know. It’s the form that grabs you physically, that throws you on the ground, that hits you that does these kinds of things, and so we recognize that we can video that, you know. We can send that out on the internet and get people together for a rally. The other more equally, the pernicious ways of upholding the caste system are not things that you can show, you know, when the person turns you down for an apartment, or turns you down for a job, or pays you less than this other person is making, or denies you healthcare, or you get a poor quality of health care, but none of those things, you know, that happen and exacerbate, you know, the kind of caste differentials that we see in American society are none of those things are easily encapsulated on film, but with policing, we see that most overtly, and that’s what we can kind of sink our teeth into. Now, I have my own kind of particulars about caste, and you know, my arguments, and I don’t know, that is the best term, you know, for what the situation is, because caste has a very particular and specific history in India, some of which does not comport to our history here, but, you know, in the broad sense, if we’re going to go with just the kind of analogy, then yeah, I think policing does uphold that system, in conjunction with lots of other mechanisms. 

Chanda Smith Baker  28:05 

Yeah, and I think you touched on my last question, which was really about sort of the tensions that we’ve seen around policing? Is it symbolic of basically, overall race relations with what’s happening in every other system that we interact with, and how and how do we help? How do I help in philanthropy, and more broadly, people to translate that this, this sort of racial tension exists in those systems, if you believe that, but that it just manifests differently, but that the stories are still being told, and we’re just not believing them? 

Jelani Cobb  28:41 

Yeah, I think that it’s a kind of both end thing, like we have to attempt to reform our police departments, but what we really have to do is work to uproot inequality. You know, because, you know, before George Floyd died at the hands of Derek Chauvin, he was unemployed and he was a person infected with COVID-19, and what we saw in 2020, was really a stripping away of the facades in society. You know, we saw exactly who could not get out of the way of that virus, and who could. We saw exactly who was more likely to lose their job, and who was not, and then we saw the exactly who was more likely to die, if they did get infected with COVID-19, all those things correlated to what we know roughly is the categories of the racial hierarchy in the United States, and then, in the midst of that he was killed by a white police officer. If we want to address policing, we’re going to have to address all of it. We’re going to have to address Education. When someone says that I’m fighting against police brutality, I’m trying to get more funding for education, those two things are not contradictory, and the person says we need to deal with the health disparities, the person says, and sure that we actually want to have the kind of society that we purport to be, and that policing is one component of it, and I worry that in addressing policing, we think that the, because that’s gotten a great deal of attention, realistically, and rightfully, we think that that has been the barometer by which we’ll measure equality in our society, and it’s just one of them. 

Chanda Smith Baker  30:43 

I guess the last thing is, I’m gonna go to hope, and again, in the last conversation you’d have with Westminster, they talked about a quote from Eddie Glaude, Jr. and I also had a chance to speak with him, what captured me on the day of the Floyd verdict was Van Jones, who said, I woke up this morning, afraid to hope, and I heard that and I said, you know, bro, like, I felt that with my whole body when he said that, because there’s no reason that I actually felt that the verdict wouldn’t be the same, because of all of the things that converged on this case, right. I expected that, but I was afraid to hope for it, and there was just like this huge relief, and I just want to leave and just as we conclude this conversation, to just kind of gauge your level of hopefulness, you have a different point of view, you get to see things national and more intimately than I have across the country. Are you feeling hopeful that we’re on the right path? 

Jelani Cobb  31:46 

I think I’m hopeful that, in the energy that the young people are bringing to this fight, and I’m hopeful in the results that activists and people in the street, and people in everyday, regular people and communities have been able to make and have the whole world take notice, and I think that, you know, these are moments they come and go, but if you try to run up the score when you have them, you know, because I remember, I’m old enough to remember when there was no conversation around criminal justice reform, where there really was no conversation around wrongful police use of force, and a number of people, disproportionately black people, and other people of color who had been killed at the hands of law enforcement in circumstances where they should still be alive. That wasn’t a conversation in the 90s. There was barely a conversation in the 2000s, and so I view this as a culmination of decades of work that people have done to make this happen, and we have an opportunity to make some substantial change, doesn’t guarantee that we will, it doesn’t guarantee there won’t be difficulties by thinking at least as possible, which is something that was much harder to think years ago. 

Chanda Smith Baker  33:08 

Thank you for your time, and I will be, you know, flipping channels and stopping when I see you on MSNBC and everywhere and reading your articles, and I invite others that have listening to do the same and to check out the conversation that you had with the Westminster Town Hall. So I thank you, I’ll let you get to your writing. I appreciate everything that you do on behalf of our collective communities. 

Jelani Cobb  33:31 

Thank you. 

Souphak Kienitz  33:34 

That’s Jelani Cobb in our house, Shanna Smith Baker, and another shout out to Target for sponsoring this episode. This conversation was in partnership with Westminster Town Hall Forum, calling on a special series on racial justice in this month of May tune in on Tuesdays in May and you can hear the speakers on Minnesota Public Radio. And if you’re interested in sponsoring this conversation, and looking for ways to do more, please contact me. You can find my information on our website at or just simply give us a call and ask for Souphak Kienitz. If you liked this episode, you can tweet Chanda  @chandasbaker and let her know and if you want to say thank you, please leave us a review and follow us wherever you get your podcast. Thank you to Sarah Gillund for making our working copy for this episode, and thank you to Darlynn Benjamin for coordinating and making this conversation happen. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next week. 

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About Our Guest

Jelani Cobb

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.

Jelani 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.

Jelani 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.”

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