The poster for the event

Bwog sent staff writer Sarah Kinney and Events Editor Lexie Lehmann to Miller Theater Wednesday night to sit in on a panel discussion about race relations in Trump’s America. Stocked with intellectual powerhouses, the discussion was anything but dry. We laughed, we cried, we scribbled letters to our senators frantically in our notebooks. Read on to get the deets on this incredibly moving talk. 

On Wednesday evening, a sold out crowd shuffled into Miller Theater for a panel discussion presented by the Columbia Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) as part of their Climate of Inclusiveness discussion series. This discussion, Moving Forward: A Discussion of the 2016 Election and What’s Next, featured four speakers: award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, Columbia Professor of Journalism and writer for the New Yorker Jelani Cobb, award-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times Nikole Jones, and James L. Dohr Professor of Law here at Columbia Patricia Williams. As if the panel wasn’t stacked enough, the discussion was moderated by professor, lawyer, and IRAAS Director Samuel Roberts. Before beginning, Roberts explained that this panel discussion had been in the works since November 9, a day that will live in infamy. However, these four scholars have been digesting and developing their ideas on race relations in Trump’s America for more than just a few months. All four are prolific and widely-respected intellectuals whose investigative work dates back for decades.

After brief, amicable introductions, Roberts introduced the first talking point. He said that, personally, he had fully expected a Clinton victory back on November 8th. He was in shock when Trump won the electoral votes. Roberts asked the panel whether or not they believed Trump’s win was a “divergence from the trajectory of history,” or merely history repeating itself once again. Cobb was the first to reply, saying that he in no way thinks Trump’s presidency is an anomaly—especially considering it came right after eight years of a progressive black president. Cobb thinks that history has always moved at a creeping pace, taking two steps forward and one step back. The rest of the panel seemed to agree. Coates emphasized, in his trademark poetic way, that “white supremacy in American history is a gravity. It’s always been there.”
Next, Robert posed a question about Trump’s Twitter habits. What, he asked, should we be focusing on instead? What are the important issues from which Trump is distracting us through his sporadic tweets? After pointing out that Trump’s Twitter habits are primarily due to the fact that he himself is sporadic and unpredictable, the discussion turned to a profound conversation about the role fear plays in white supremacy—and what Trump is doing to contribute to that fear. Cobb, an atheist, likened white supremacy to a religion he cannot comprehend. In perhaps the most profound comment of the night, Cobb said, “White supremacy is a faith, and [Trump supporters] are paying a particular tithe.” Cobb thinks that some white citizens who voted for Trump did so because they know he will keep people of color at bay. “When Trump puts us back in our corner,” Cobb said, “they are returning on that investment.”
The topics discussed at this panel were clearly serious and poignant.

However, the tone of the discussion was lighthearted and honest. Roberts continually joked with the panel, begging them to say something optimistic. Jones, in the middle of a brilliant monologue about school segregation in the United States, simply sighed and said, “You know what? Shit’s always been bad. But shit can get worse.” And the friends on stage could laugh it off. When Roberts asked, “Can anyone actually be that unintelligent?”—referring to President Trump—all four speakers responded with a whoop and a resounding “Yes!” They joked with each other, nevertheless clearly in awe of each other’s eloquent arguments. Each comment was more nuanced and astute than the last. Four speakers of varying ages and backgrounds were all able to bring a progressive perspective to an incredibly doomed situation.
The discussion ended with a question from the audience: how can we, as students, channel the energy from widespread protests into legitimate policy planning and change? Coates, once again, spoke with eloquent ease, right from the heart. “You need to figure out what makes you happy,” he said, “what makes you get out of bed in the morning. Figure out how to work that into the service of justice.” The overwhelmingly moved crowd got to their feet, in awe of Coates’ declaration. “There’s your dose of optimism,” he said.

Poster via Columbia Events