Presentation By Alan Curtis At the National Forum On the Kerner Fiftieth At George Washington University, Washington DC, on February 27, 2018

Healing Our Divided Society

Alan Curtis


The Eisenhower Foundation



Remarks At A National Forum

In Commemoration Of The

Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Kerner Commission



Sponsored By

The Eisenhower Foundation

The Learning Policy Institute

The Economic Policy Institute



George Washington University

Washington DC

February 27, 2018


Thank you, Dean Feuer, for your introduction and for hosting this Forum on Healing Our Divided Society.

Tracey Felder and Leila McDowell have done so much to make Healing Our Divided Society possible. I want to recognize them today. Fred Harris, Linda Darling-Hammond and all our contributors have been noble and tireless partners.

Our co-sponsors at the Learning Policy Institute and the Economic Policy Institute have worked long hours – and I especially want to thank Barbara McKenna.

We are here today because of the visionary financial support of, in alphabetical order, the Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

We will continue to speak out on Healing Our Divided Society in 2018 and 2019.

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

Fifty years later, we conclude that America still has a long way to go – but we have 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. Everyone has seen the movie Black Panther.

Yet Mr. Coates, as Mr. Baldwin, speaks truth to power. Neo Nazis have become emboldened in Charlottesville 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 about 1.4 million – and they are disproportionately people of color. In some 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 the failure of so called “welfare reform” in the 1990s. Income and wealth inequality have increased – and were greatly 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 2 to 1.
In comparison to all other industrialized democracies, America has the highest rates of overall child poverty, homicide and incarceration.

None of this has to be. There is an emerging new movement today to base policy on evidence, not ideology.

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

The Kerner Commission’s recommendations begin with economic and education priorities.
Today, that means we need proven, demand side, Keynesian 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.

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 increased 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. The community policing should secure neighborhoods – to encourage the kind of community based banking that was so successful before the 1980s. The banking should encourage community based economic development corporations to construct affordable housing. The housing construction should create jobs framed as both employment and youth development strategies. The youth development strategies should scale up community based mentoring, youth leadership and life skills training for high school students at risk of dropping out. National evidence based models for doing such youth development include YouthBuild and Quantum Opportunities. After school mentoring by neighborhood nonprofit organizations replicating such models should extend down to middle and elementary school. And all eligible low income children should receive pre-school.

In other words, evidence based policy that works targets multiple solutions to multiple problems. Evidence based policy is complementary and interdependent. It 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 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 evidence based policy. 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 evidence based Kerner strategy 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. 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 than ever to achieve than ever. But we must begin. As President John Kennedy paraphrased George Bernard Shaw, 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 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 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.

But Reverend Barber needs to be joined by other constituencies – like the 18 million white Americans who live in poverty, young people who are protesting against college loan expenses and gun violence, middle class Americans who are not part of the wealthiest 5 percent, immigrants, the Women’s movement and the LGBTQ rights movement.

The movement for change must originate outside of Washington. But we need to remember that good government won World War II, developed the interstate highway system, created the internet and passed the Civil Rights and Voting acts of the nineteen sixties. Good government now must invest in Kerner priorities and scale up what works.

We must proceed while never forgetting the dream, and how long it 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: