Old Snake, New Skin

Jelani Cobb speaks on diversity

March 20, 2017

Jelani Cobb speaks at the ACLU of Illinois luncheon, March 17, 2017.
Jelani Cobb speaks at the ACLU of Illinois luncheon, March 17, 2017.

The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) has often joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in initiatives and court briefs on free-speech issues where the two organizations find common ground. One was a 2002 lawsuit seeking records of FBI surveillance of libraries and bookstores under the USA Patriot Act; another was the 2013 effort to reinstate Patricia Polacco’s In Our Mothers’ House, a children’s book about three adopted children and their two mothers, in the Davis County (Utah) Public School libraries.

So when the ACLU of Illinois held its annual luncheon at the Hilton Chicago on March 17, FTRF and other staffers from the American Library Association (ALA) headquarters joined some 2,000 other like-minded individuals for its program on “Fighting for a More Perfect Union.” Although the topics addressed did not touch on libraries per se, two major themes involved the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and resistance to the civil rights of transgender individuals.

US Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was on hand to tell the story of former congressman and Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, whose father had told him, as they were preparing to take a train to the Japanese internment camp where they would be forced to live during World War II, to make sure he wore his Boy Scout uniform because it had an American flag patch on it. Durbin said he remembered the Mineta story as he was giving a talk at the Islamic Foundation mosque in Villa Park, Illinois, on February 5. A young boy in the crowd was sitting in a wheelchair, wearing his Cub Scout uniform.

Durbin repeated what he told Muslim attendees that day: “Be proud of your faith, and know that even in the darkest hours there are millions of Americans who stand by your side. And know that at some time in your life, you will be called on to stand by others who face those same words of hate and scorn.” He added, “Wherever there are excesses in authoritarianism, the ACLU has been there to confront them.”

Award to transgender clients

Transgender student Alex McCray.
Transgender student Alex McCray.

Another highlight of the ACLU luncheon was the presentation of the group’s John R. Hammell Award to all the Illinois transgender students and their families whom the ACLU has represented in court cases. Alex McCray, a former student at Williamsville (Ill.) High School, accepted the award on their behalf. He had sought the help of the ACLU of Illinois and filed a discrimination charge against the district with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. Until his senior year, McCray was required by school officials to use a single-occupant restroom in a remote part of the building rather than restrooms used by other boys.

McCray said it was a “dingy and leaky” restroom that no one else used. “It made me feel like I was being treated differently and ostracized.” In April 2016, the school district settled and allowed him to use the locker rooms and restrooms consistent with his male gender identity.

We’ve been there before

Jelani Cobb
Jelani Cobb

The keynote speaker for the afternoon was journalist and historian Jelani Cobb, currently a staff writer for the New Yorker, who offered a historical perspective on race and immigration issues in the United States. Cobb is from Queens, New York, “as is Donald Trump,” he pointed out. “Queens is statistically the most diverse area in the United States,” he said, “with more languages spoken there than anywhere else.”

To drill that point home, he said that he was on a flight from Atlanta to New York shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the passengers were boarding, a “tall, brown-skinned man wearing a kufi cap and tunic (signifying Muslim) walked down the aisle, and tensions began ratcheting up. He sat down in a seat one row behind me. I turned around and asked him where he was from, and he countered, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Queens,’ I said. ‘All right then, I’m from Queens too,’ the man said.”

“Not only that,” Cobb went on, “we had been in the same breakdance group in high school. He was the best breakdancer of my youth. I had recognized him as an individual, and in the process I, a large black man, was able to make the white people around me more comfortable.”

Cobb told another story. On May 10, 1865, social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass gave a short talk at the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was deciding whether or not to disband now that the slaves were free. Douglass argued that it would be best to remain vigilant. Slavery, he said, “has been called a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

Cobb reminded everyone that the ACLU was established in 1920 in an earlier time of “great fear and uncertainty.” The Espionage Act of 1917 had curtailed antiwar speech during and after World War I, Madison Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race recommended restricting non-Nordic immigrants, and the Palmer Raids of 1918–1919 were targeting radicals and immigrants for alleged anarchist and disloyal beliefs. Bigotries such as these, Cobb said, “lead to catastrophic outcomes.”

“Then came November 8 last year,” Cobb said. “How did this happen? For me, the moment came at 3 a.m. when I realized that my involvement for the past 20 years in the history of the civil rights movement” was at threat. “If I really believed in those principles, it will be incumbent on myself and all of us to resist.”

“The lesson in all of this is that we now know what new skin the snake has taken on,” Cobb concluded. “But we know what must be done to defeat it. We can win again, because we see that we have won before.”

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