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Jelani Cobb: Revisiting The Historic Kerner Comm. Report On US Racism

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Peter Morenus/UConn
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Dr. Jelani Cobb is an award-winning commentator on racial justice issues. A staff writer for The New Yorker, he teaches journalism at Columbia University.

Tom's guest today is Dr. Jelani Cobb, one of the most important public intellectuals of our time, a scholar and commentator who has offered invaluable insights in the study of racial equality in America in several books, and as a staff writer at the New Yorker. Dr. Cobb, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary, teaches journalism at Columbia University and is a frequent commentator on MSNBC.

Dr. Cobb has just published a new book, co-edited with historian Matthew Guariglia, that reintroduces us to the Kerner Commission Report, the landmark 1968 study of racism, inequity and police violence. The report, formally known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, and chaired by then-Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., was released just one month before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The commission was established by President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of nearly two dozen riots that had taken place in cities across America over the preceding three years.

In his televised address to the nation on the evening he announced the commission in July 1967, President Johnson said:

"The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack— mounted at every level—upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions—not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America."

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Published by Liveright/W.W. Norton

Jelani Cobb makes a compelling case for the Kerner Commission’s relevance today. In his trenchant and enlightening introduction to the report, he demonstrates that, quote, “Kerner establishes that it is possible for us to be entirely cognizant of history and repeat it anyway.”

The racial injustice and inequity that the Kerner Report described more than 50 years ago still create barriers to advancement for people of color. Much of the analysis of the racial dynamic in America that the report offers rings as true today as it did in its day.

The book is The Essential Kerner Commission Report, published by Liveright/W.W. Norton.

Dr. Jelani Cobb joins us on our digital line from his office at Columbia University in New York.

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