What’s On My Mind: Racial protest in America

This regular column is aimed at opening another channel of conversation with you about the opportunities and challenges we face, together as the faculty, staff and leaders of our great university.

You can’t truly understand America’s history if you don’t understand how conflict over race has shaped our country.

There’s the Civil War and the civil rights movement, to be sure. Even though they were a century apart, these major markers in our country’s history tore at the same threads in the fabric of our society.

But there’s so much more to the fight for equality than wars and sit-ins. It’s also protest on a more singular scale, one person simply deciding they can’t put up with the status quo one moment more, and that decision spreads like a wave.

Jelani Cobb is a leading American contemporary voice on the topic of racial justice and its interactions with politics, history and culture. He came to campus on Jan. 17, speaking to a rousing crowd at Langford Auditorium as part of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series and rounded out our Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series. Earlier in the day, I had the opportunity to talk with him one on one. That conversation will be the topic of an upcoming edition of The Zeppos Report podcast.

In his recent writing and speaking engagements, Jelani has been focusing on how people in sports and entertainment use their public platforms to protest against racial inequalities.

In a recent New Yorker column, he wrote about jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong 60 years ago refusing to participate in a goodwill tour in the Soviet Union because the governor was refusing to let the Little Rock 9 attend high school in Arkansas.

In the same piece, he references Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who triggered a national debate when he chose to silently protest police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. His quiet dissent sped through the NFL and is now echoed by athletes in every arena.

Both men were derided as unpatriotic, ungrateful and even uppity. But let me ask you—in their protests, by speaking out against injustice, aren’t they fulfilling the role of a citizen in a democracy?

In the current political climate, issues on race have become polarizing. Jelani hasn’t been afraid to ask the questions that we as Americans are still struggling to answer. I believe that by sitting down together to find answers, we can find common ground.

That’s what I want for Vanderbilt. I want us to be the place where people speak out against injustice. I want us to be the common ground for difficult conversations conducted with honesty and respect, fueled by the optimism of progress, and grounded in a community of love and trust and learning.

That depth of understanding flows from putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and trying to appreciate what their life feels like and to learn from one another’s perspectives and experiences. Sometimes that learning can, and should, make us feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to shine a light on yourself and see unconscious bias, exclusionary habits, privilege. But far from shying away from this discomfort, our students, faculty and staff choose to lean into those issues by choosing Vanderbilt. Students, faculty and staff choose to come to Vanderbilt, often from less diverse circumstances, because of their eagerness and desire to have these conversations and to be part of a beloved, diverse community.

I am privileged in so many ways as your chancellor. I am eager to learn, to engage and to make this great university better every single day with you.

What’s On My Mind is a regular column from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on the life, people and mission of Vanderbilt University and issues affecting higher education today. Share your thoughts at