Jelani Cobb, Columbia University professor and New Yorker correspondent, joined us to discuss the launch of The Essential Kerner Commission Report, a historic study of American racism and police violence. The Report examines economic inequality, race, and policing in more than a dozen urban uprisings between 1964 and 1967. In a conversation with Arva Rice, CEO and President of the New York Urban League, a civil rights organization dedicated to addressing structural issues in underserved communities, the two considered the crucial importance of the report’s findings to today’s fight for equal justice. Library Journal says, “this version of the report might point the way toward a national resolution, if the United States summons the will and wherewithal to make change.”
The Essential Kerner Commission Report
By Jelani Cobb
Published by W. W. Norton
The Kerner Commission Report, released a month before Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, is among a handful of government reports that reads like an illuminating history book—a dramatic, often shocking, exploration of systemic racism that transcends its time. Yet Columbia University professor and New Yorker correspondent Jelani Cobb argues that this prescient report, which examined more than a dozen urban uprisings between 1964 and 1967, has been woefully neglected.
In an enlightening new introduction, Cobb reveals how these uprisings were used as political fodder by Republicans and demonstrates that this condensed edition of the Report should be essential reading at a moment when protest movements are challenging us to uproot racial injustice. A detailed examination of economic inequality, race, and policing, the Report has never been more relevant, and demonstrates to devastating effect that it is possible for us to be entirely cognizant of history and still tragically repeat it.
As Cobb demonstrates, the report’s central findings were that it was never a single incident, never a single police officer, that was the sole factor behind the frustration that so many Americans felt, but that unaddressed systemic economic, social, and political inequalities made the whole of America into a powder keg, easily combustible at any moment. Cobb argues that just as Republicans used the 1968 Days of Rage to instill fear in the American populace and bolster Richard Nixon’s presidential race, so too do we, in the wake of last summer’s BLM protests against the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, face the same terrifying potential.
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb is the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School. The recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations, he lives in New York.
Arva Rice is a passionate community leader who has dedicated herself to creating pathways to success for young people with a focus on girls and women. Arva currently serves as President & CEO of the New York Urban League. The New York Urban League is leading the way underserved African-Americans are educated, employed and empowered across the 5 boroughs. For the past 100 years we’ve inspired, influenced, and ignited over 1 million black people to achieve their highest aspirations. Arva is a member of the Women’s Forum, Greater New York Chapter of The Links Incorporated, a Commissioner for the NYC Equal Employment Practices Commission and Trustee at First Corinthians Baptist Church. Arva is a 2013-2014 Annie Casey Fellow, a national fellowship for government and nonprofit leaders focused on supporting innovation solutions for children. Arva graduated from the Northwestern University. She currently lives in Harlem.