Presentation by Alan Curtis at the Kerner Fiftieth Forum at Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York, on April 20, 2018

Remarks By Alan Curtis


The Eisenhower Foundation


Forum In Commemoration

Of The Kerner Commission

Fiftieth Anniversary


Union Theological Seminary

New York, New York

April 20, 2018


Sponsored By:


The Institute for New Economic Thinking

The Eisenhower Foundation

The Roosevelt Institute

The American Assembly, Columbia University


Good afternoon,

I want to thank the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the American Assembly and the Roosevelt Institute for organizing this important event.

We are updating the Kerner Commission on its fiftieth anniversary. But it is not unrelated that today also is the anniversary of the Columbine gun violence massacre, a reality I will return to in a moment.

The essence of the original Kerner Commission report in 1968 was that America had a long way to go in reducing poverty, inequality and racial injustice.

Fifty years later, we conclude in Healing our Divided Society that America still has a long way to go. But we have, at least, built up much more evidence on what works. And on what doesn’t work.

We now need to generate what the Kerner Commission called “new will” among the American people – to scale up and legislate what we know to work for the poor, the working classes and the middle classes of all races.
Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have twice elected an African American President. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of African American and Latino elected officials. The African American and Latino middle classes have expanded. And everyone has seen Black Panther.

Yet, Mr. Coates, as Mr. Baldwin, speaks power to truth. Neo Nazis have become emboldened in Charlottesville, Virginia and many other places. Black Lives Matter has revealed what Americans did not want to see in Ferguson – and in many other places. Zero tolerance policing against people of color has failed. Sentencing laws remain racially biased. About 200,000 people were incarcerated in 1968. Today the prison industrial complex holds 1.4 million – and they are disproportionately people of color. In many ways, mass incarceration has become our housing policy for the poor – and that housing policy has included conscious, purposeful government-created segregation, as Richard Rothstein has eloquently documented in the Color of Law.

Public school segregation has increased since the Kerner Commission. Overall child poverty has increased. Deep poverty has increased, in part because of what the late Molly Ivins called the “welfare deform” of the 1990s. Income and wealth inequality have increased – and were accelerated by the supply side created Great Recession of 2008. Through good times and bad over the last 50 years, the ratio of African American to White unemployment has continued to be about 2 to 1.

In comparison to all other industrialized democracies, America has the highest rates of overall child poverty, homicide and incarceration.

But, in the long run, none of this has to be. There is an incipient movement today to base policy on evidence, not ideology. We need to add momentum to that movement.

In terms of Kerner priorities, what are some examples of evidence based policy that works?

The Kerner Commission’s recommendations began with economic and education priorities.

Today, that means we need proven, demand side Keynesian economic policy that links job training to full employment job creation to job placement. We need a significantly higher minimum wage, more power for labor unions, trade policy that benefits workers, and single payer health insurance for all Americans. Among other outcomes, such policy must strive to eliminate the historic 2 to 1 Black to White unemployment ratio.

What does evidence based policy mean in education? We need housing and therefore school integration – combined with much more equitable financing of public schools and greatly improved training of public school teachers.

How does evidence based policy embrace specific locations? In poor and working class neighborhoods across the nation, we need genuine community policing – where specially trained officers really partner with indigenous nonprofit organizations. Such truly innovative community policing should encourage the kind of community based banking that was so successful before the Reagan Administration. The banking should encourage community based economic development corporations to construct affordable and integrated housing. The housing construction should create jobs for community residents and for returning ex-offenders who benefit from evidence based reintegration models like the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York. The jobs also should be framed as youth development. The youth development should scale up evidence based models like Youth Build and Quantum Opportunities that provide mentoring, tutoring and life skills training to high school youth at risk of dropping out. The mentoring should be continuous, down to middle and elementary school. And all eligible children should receive preschool.

In other words, evidence based policy that works targets multiple solutions to multiple problems. Evidence based policy is complementary and interdependent. Evidence based policy is not separate and unequal.

The scaling up of what works needs to be financed by the scaling down of what doesn’t work – like trickle down supply side tax breaks for the rich, prison building for the poor, zero tolerance policing, privatization of schools, and false rhetoric on “empowerment,” “volunteerism” and “self-sufficiency.”

Criticized by the Kerner Commission in 1968, the media today need to better cover what works. And the media finally need to recognize that the real story is “dog bites man” – not “man bites dog.” The real story is everyday violence, poverty, inequality and racial injustice.

With sufficient investment in human capital, a new Kerner strategy based on what works can reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice – in a way that increases American soft power globally and that communicates to Russia, China and the rest of the world how American values matter. As Joe Stiglitz has reminded us, America is in great need of such new soft power.

Yet new soft power and new evidence based policy cannot emerge without new political will.

Fifty years after the Kerner Commission, the creation of new will may be harder to achieve than ever. But we must begin. Some see things as they are and say, “Why?” We must dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”

Reverend King asked why not. When he was assassinated in 1968, shortly after the Kerner Report was released, his emerging vision was a multiracial coalition for economic justice among the poor, the working class and the middle class.

When Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated just two months later in 1968, he, too, was advocating liberalism without elitism and populism without racism. He, too, as Dr. King, was advocating a multiracial coalition for economic justice. That coalition needs to be the point of departure for the generation of new will today.

Reverend William Barber’s national Poor People’s Campaign against the immorality of poverty and inequality can help lead the way. We will be working with Reverend Barber in coming months, as the Poor People’s Campaign arrives in Washington on Mother’s Day.

History has shown that successful movements in America are inclusive and opportunistic. Successful movements build constituencies and enhance alliances, while maintaining their founding values. That means Reverend Barber needs to be joined by other constituencies.

Those Kerner constituencies potentially include the 18 million white Americans who live in poverty.

Those constituencies include the high school leaders from Parkland, Florida who have impressively organized the Never Again movement against gun violence – a movement which, on this Columbine anniversary, has organized more protests and more in-school events.

Those constituencies include millennials who are organizing against unreasonable college loan expenses.

Those constituencies include teachers who have walked out of schools, demanding higher salaries and new textbooks.

Those constituencies include the Women’s Movement, immigrants and the LGBTQ Movement.

And those constituencies include most of the 99 percent of us who have suffered the greed and malfeasance of Wall Street.

In support of these and other emerging constituencies, and in support of Kerner alliance building, American universities need to better integrate the documentation of what works with the creation of new will. Universities need to develop more ambitious programs in nonprofit organization management and social movement management. More prestige should be attached to degrees in such areas of concentration.

Of course, a new Kerner alliance can only be created outside of Washington. But legislation and funding must build on good government. President Roosevelt brought us the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security. Good government legislated the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. Good government now must invest in Kerner priorities and scale up what works.
As we do so, we must be passionate, and we must never forget how the dream has been deferred.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore and then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?

Perhaps that dream just sags, like a heavy load?

Or, does it just explode?


This presentation provides a summary to Fred Harris and Alan Curtis, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018. See: