Farai Chideya: 50 Years After Kerner Commission, Are Media Still Failing to Tell Minority Stories?

“I think it is an us-and-them thing, but the us is ‘us’ who are committed to diversity and ‘them’ who are not.”

Laura Weber Davis/WDET

Fifty years ago this month, a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a report that detailed the reasons and causes that led to the massive civil unrest and violence in Detroit and other cities the previous summer.

The Kerner Commission report detailed a horrifying set of circumstances created by the white ruling class that oppressed black Americans to a breaking point.

Segregation, poor housing conditions, inadequate employment and education, and an overall social and cultural structure built on racism inflamed tensions, leading up to the rebellions, or riots, of 1967.

The report was a warning of sorts, a list of ways America needed to change, or suffer indefinitely into the future. One of the biggest criticisms in the report was aimed at the mass media, a wholly white world telling the stories of America through a white perspective alone.

So where are we today, 50 years later? What has changed, for better or worse or not at all?

Multimedia journalist and journalism program officer at the Ford Foundation Farai Chideya joins Detroit Today to discuss the progress made since the Kerner Commission. She says that the lack of black representation in media was undemocratic.

“The Kerner Commission Report was very prescient in the sense that it talked about equity, that people have a legitimate need for representation in the media as being part of a democracy,” she says. “It’s not just a feel good thing, or a ‘I want to see my own people’ thing.”

From 2006 to 2009, Chideya hosted NPR’s national, daily radio show News and Notes. She reflects on her experiences as a black woman hosting a show at NPR. She says that while journalists of color are often not given their due, it is important not to frame the issue based on race.

“We can’t make this just an ‘us and them’ thing. I think it is an us and them thing, but the us is ‘us’ who are committed to diversity and ‘them’ who are not.”

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.

Farai Chideya will host the Ford Foundation’s event marking the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission’s report on March 5th at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. You can register to attend the event here.


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