When assessing the past 50 years, journalist and historian Jelani Cobb says, “If you were trying to make a report card, there would be some areas where there was progress, and some areas where we’ve actually moved backward since then.”

Jelani Cobb. Photo by journalism.columbia.edu

Cobb — who is a staff writer for the New Yorker and most recently the author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress — was in Memphis this week to deliver the keynote speech at the annual dinner to benefit Facing History and Ourselves, the international educational nonprofit.

Compared to 1968, Cobb says, more people of color have access to education, and the labor market is generally more inclusive than it was 50 years ago. In other areas, though, we still have a long way to go.

Pointing to the predatory lending leading up to the housing market crash of 2008, Cobb says, “That devastated a community that had always been behind, in terms of their economic standing. And we see that we have created an industry out of incarcerating people in this country.”

These particular problems, Cobb says, were not so pronounced 50 years ago.

As a historian, Cobb often looks to the past to put our present moment into context.

“In the middle third of the 20th century, the United States embarked on this kind of bold engineering idea to create a middle class,” Cobb says.

This effort centered on making homes affordable, building highways which, in turn, contributed to the creation of the automobile industry. In addition, education and higher education were democratized.

“Of course, there were racially exclusionary policies attached to all of those things,” Cobb said, “But for the majority of the American public those things actually worked.”

But today, Cobb says, “We’ve now moved into this position where people believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the government has no role in these sectors. And as long as we think that, I think we’ll have a difficult time addressing those problems.”

As we look ahead to the next 50 years, Cobb points out public policy decisions that might move society toward Martin Luther King’s vision for equity and economic justice. In addition to increasing voting access, Cobb says, “We need to seriously reconsider our ideas around living wages and what the minimum wage is.”

Jelani Cobb delivers the keynote speech at the annual dinner to benefit Facing History and Ourselves. Photo by Martha Park

In the chaos of our current political climate, Cobb thinks history can be particularly useful.

“I think that the work that we have to do,” Cobb says, “is showing people the examples of people who did the right thing, because in our current circumstance, we’re seeing so little of that.”

“This is, in our national politics, a really toxic time. Children could turn on the television now and see the president of the United States involved in a feud with the family of a fallen soldier — something that’s never supposed to happen — but we’ve seen a great deal that’s not supposed to happen.”

Cobb also spoke of the pendulum effect of American politics, saying, “It’s kind of two steps forward and one step back, or sometimes one and a half or one and three-quarters steps back, but we still hopefully maintain some incremental element of progress. This is when even a small number of people of conscience become indispensable.”

This piece is published in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.