Third installment of History Speaker Series: Professor Jelani Cobb on voter suppression

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Claire Goldberg, Staff Writer

On Wednesday night, Dr. Jelani Cobb discussed the history of voter suppression in the third installment of the Upper Division (UD) Race and Ethnicity Speaker Series, “How did We Get Here?: The Past and Present of Electoral Politics and Voter Suppression.” Cobb provided a framework through which students can reckon with this year’s election, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said. Cobb is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is also a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Link and history teacher Barry Bienstock hosted the event while AJ Walker (11) and Srijani Shreya (12) moderated it.  

“We invited Professor Cobb because he thinks like a historian but writes like a journalist, which makes his writing and talks very accessible to students,” Link said. Cobb also spoke at the school as the keynote speaker for a Book Day assembly about “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehasi Coates, which was a huge success, he said. 

In his talk, Cobb discussed how the current political climate, which prevents people of color from voting, is part of a larger history of voter suppression. “We do not talk enough about the history of partisan violence surrounding voting,” he said. This election, five hour lines to vote disproportionately impacted minority populations, which is a form of voter suppression that stems from the violent suppression of the Black vote throughout American history, he said.

Cobb compared the motivations to vote in the 2020 election to the reason for Black suffrage in 1870: defending democracy. After the Civil War, the Union had to reincorporate the South in a way that did not over-empower white southerners. “With the 15th amendment, Black people were given the right to vote to defend democracy that would’ve been destroyed by white supremacists,” Cobb said. “Now in 2020, we see the same motivation of people coming to vote against Trump.”

Cobb also described his “Christmas list for democracy,” which included an affirmative national voting. In the 2013 Supreme Court Case Shelby County v. Holder, the Court decided to roll back regulations established in the Voting Rights Act that required Southern states to seek congressional approval on rulings pertaining to voting rights. “Rather than repeal it because of the belief that southern whites were being ‘unfairly burdened by the history of racism,’ they should have made all of the country have these restrictions.” 

Due to these protections of national voter suppression, Cobb has concluded that the United States is not a democracy, but rather a society striving to be democratic. 

Walker hopes that students at the school, who have immense privilege due to their education, reflect on this message. “I hope people take away that America is not and cannot be a democracy unless everyone is given equal opportunity and access to vote,” he said. 

Shreya was glad she could participate in Cobb’s talk after witnessing the integral role voter turnout played in the 2020 Election, she said. “This election forces us to grapple with whether or not we are trying to secure our system and make it more accessible to people, or whether we are actually trying to leave people out.”

This talk challenges students to think beyond their privileged view of democracy, Walker said. “For the majority of people in our community, when they turn 18, they will go and vote and be politically active, without ever having to think about voter suppression at all,” Walker said. 

Garo Amerkanian (12) lives in New Jersey and said that Cobb’s discussion about the importance of local news to hold politicians accountable really resonated with him and his personal experiences. “Where I live I have seen with my own eyes that a lot of people trust their local news stations, so I know that his point about the revitalization of local news sources would be really impactful in informing the members of my community about pressing issues.”

As a school that is politically active, understanding the fundamental issue of voting and the role of civic engagement is pertinent, Amerikanian said. “If we are to call ourselves politically active students at all, it is really important to talk about this history of voter suppression and grapple with this.”

Bienstock hopes that this talk builds on what students have already learned from the previous installments of the speakers series, he said. “Just like the September and October speakers talked about figuring out the root causes of the problems that we are experiencing today, this talk shows that voter suppression originated way before 2020.”