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Jelani Cobb: Revisiting the 1968 Kerner Comm. report on US racism

Dr. Jelani Cobb teaches journalism at Columbia University and is a staff writer at The New Yorker
Peter Morenus/UConn
Dr. Jelani Cobb teaches journalism at Columbia University and is a staff writer at The New Yorker

(This conversation originally aired on September 15, 2021)

Good afternoon and welcome to this archive edition of Midday. Tom Hall's guest is 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 contributor and staff writer at The New Yorker. Dr. Cobb also teaches journalism at Columbia University, and is a frequent commentator on MSNBC.

Jelani Cobb’s latest book is about the Kerner Commission. The commission’s report was released in 1968, just one month before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The commission was established by President Lyndon Johnsonin 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."

Published by W.W. Norton
Published by 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 contends that “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.

His book is called The Essential Kerner Commission Report. His co-editor is Matthew Guariglia. Jelani Cobb joined us on our digital line from New York.

Because our conversation was recorded earlier, we can’t take any calls or on-line comments.

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