Presentation By Alan Curtis At the Kerner Fiftieth Forum At the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 7, 2018

Healing Our Divided Society



Presentation by Alan Curtis President Eisenhower Foundation



National Conference on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report



The Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs

University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota

September 7, 2018


Sponsored By:


The Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs

The L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

The National League of Cities

The Russell Sage Foundation

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation




Thank you Dr. Gooden and Dr. Myers for organizing this Kerner Fiftieth, the Humphrey School for hosting it, and the Wilder School, the National League of Cities, the Russell Sage Foundation and the Alfred Sloan Foundation for supporting it.

I confess to having a night job during that traumatic year of 1968. I had taken time off from graduate school to serve on the staff of the Johnson-Humphrey National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which was formed right after the Kerner Commission. Yet, in the evenings and on weekends, I also was participating in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

In the fifty years since then, the Eisenhower Foundation has periodically updated the Kerner and Violence Commission. Senator Fred Harris and I edited the Kerner Fiftieth, Healing Our Divided Society, which was published in February of this year. Today, I wish to briefly reflect on our findings of the findings of our National Advisory Panel – which included Joseph Stiglitz, Linda Darling-Hammond, Marian Wright Edelman, Henry Cisneros and E.J. Dionne.

Mostly moderate and mostly White men, the members of the Kerner Commission carried the imprimatur of the political establishment. Yet the Commission still concluded that America was heading toward two societies, one Black and one White, separate and unequal.

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

The essence of our fifty year update is that America still has a long way to go – but that 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, immigrants, the working classes and the middle classes of all races.

Over the fifty 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 film Black Panther.

Yet, as Mr. Baldwin did before him, Mr. Coates speaks truth to power. Today, 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 American prison industrial complex holds 1.4 million – and they are disproportionately people of color.

In many ways, mass incarceration has become part of our housing policy for the poor. That housing policy has included conscious, purposeful government-created segregation, as Richard Rothstein has eloquently documented in his book 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 accurately 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. Most of the economic gains from rising productivity have gone to the wealthiest one percent and to corporate profits. Corporate America has shared relatively little with workers.
Through good times and bad over the last fifty years, the ratio of African American to White unemployment has continued to be two to one.

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. Today, we must better recognize and strengthen the movement to base policy on evidence, not ideology.

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 in the spirit of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. The policy needs to link job training to full employment job creation – and then to job placement. The job placement needs to focus on building and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

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 that historic two to one 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. The state of Connecticut provides a good model for replication.

Harvard and Rand Corporation evaluations in a number of places have shown significant education and economic gains among children whose families moved from high poverty neighborhoods to neighborhoods with good schools and jobs. Legislation to build on these findings is at least being considered by Congress.

What does evidence based policy mean in criminal justice? Aware of the astronomical costs of prison building, states like California, New York and New Jersey have reduced their prison populations by about twenty five percent in recent years, with little or no increases in crime.

How can we focus evidence based policy on specific locations with truly disadvantaged populations?

  • In poor and working class neighborhoods across the nation, we need more creative community policing. For example, there is considerable evidence that indigenous community based nonprofit organization staff can partner with carefully selected police officers to mentor youth and reduce crime.
  • Such innovative community based policing should be deployed to help stabilize neighborhoods and so encourage the kind of community based banking that was so successful before the regressive federal policies of the 1980s.
  • The community based banking should encourage community economic development corporations like those kind supported by Senator Robert Kennedy to construct affordable and integrated housing.
  • The housing construction should create jobs for residents and for returning ex-offenders who benefit from evidence based reintegration models like the Minnesota Comprehensive Reentry Plan.
  • The jobs also should be framed as youth development initiatives. The youth development should scale up evidence based models like YouthBuild and Quantum Opportunities. Such models extend mentoring, tutoring and life skills training to high school drop outs and youth at risk of dropping out.
  • Mentoring should be continuous, from high school 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.

What doesn’t work includes trickle down supply side tax breaks for the rich, prison building for the poor, zero tolerance policing, supply side school vouchers and privatization of schools.

What doesn’t work includes misleading rhetoric on “volunteerism,” “empowerment” and “self-sufficiency.”

What doesn’t work includes rhetoric on government being the problem – when, in fact, corporate greed is the problem.

What doesn’t work includes global symposia at exclusive venues where so called “thought leaders” avoid how to reduce inequality, avoid how to change fundamental power equations, and avoid how to reform the rules of the game. Instead, the fashion is to repeat corporate, Silicon Valleybuzzwords like win-win, market driven solutions and social impact investing.

Criticized by the Kerner Commission in 1968, the media today need to better report on what works. A good model is how the New York Times covered the Eisenhower Foundation Kerner Fiftieth Update earlier this year. There was a solid piece on the Times print op ed page. There also was a lively and extended presentation on-line in which Times writers with substantive knowledge collaborated with graphics specialists to highlight solid evidence, not alternative facts. The graphics people then crisply summarized what works and what doesn’t work.

With sufficient investment in human capital, a new evidence based Kerner strategy based on what works can reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice. Progress in achieving these goals also can increase American soft power globally. Such progress can communicate to the world how American values matter. Contrasts can be made to the human rights abuses of China and Russia. As Nobel Prize winning economist and our Kerner Fiftieth contributor Joseph Stiglitz has reminded, America is in great need of such new soft power.

Yet new soft power and new evidence based policy cannot emerge without the “new will” that the original Kerner Commission said was necessary for progress.

Fifty years after the Kerner Commission, the creation of new will may be harder to achieve than ever. But we must begin. We are back to 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 original 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 populism without racism. Robert Kennedy stood up for African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and poor whites. He said that police, waitresses, firefighters and construction workers were his people.

So, as Dr. King, Robert Kennedy was advocating a multiracial coalition for economic justice. The creation of 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 hopefully can help lead the way. Reverend Barber powerfully keynoted at our Kerner Fiftieth Forum in February.

History has shown that successful movements in America are inclusive and opportunistic. Successful movements build constituencies and enhance alliances. So Reverend Barber’s moral campaign needs to be joined by other constituencies.

Those Kerner constituencies potentially include the eighteen million White Americans who live in poverty.

Those constituencies include most of the ninety nine percent who have suffered the inequality, greed and malfeasance of Wall Street.

Those constituencies include the high school leaders from Parkland, Florida who have impressively organized the Never Again movement against gun violence.

Those constituencies include millennials who are protesting unreasonable college loan expenses.

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

Those constituencies include the leaders of new local initiatives to integrate schools that remain profoundly segregated – beginning with New York City, the nation’s largest and most segregated public school system.

Those constituencies include the supporters of affirmative action.

These constituencies include the majority of Americans who either want to keep immigration levels the same or to increase immigration levels.
Those constituencies include the Women’s Movement and the L-G-B-T-Q Movement.

The generation of new will must be facilitated, as well, by the creation of a fairer, more responsive American democracy. If the votes of all Americans were actually given equal weight, a new people’s movement would have a better chance of reducing poverty, inequality and racial injustice. That is why we must continue to fight for campaign finance reform, voting rights reform, control of gerrymandering and abolition of the Electoral College.

American foundations need to increase support for advocacy on media reform as a means to new will. In addition to more coverage of what works, the media need to more honestly recognize that the real story is in fact “dog bites man.” That is, the real story is continuing, grinding, commonplace, everyday poverty, inequality and racial injustice. We need, as well, to listen to George Soros when he calls for the regulation of big tech companies. They need to be regulated like public utilities. As part of the regulation, we must take action against social media feedback loops that push users deeper and deeper into their own hermetically sealed bubbles. We need to build on President Obama’s call to clean up social media and better utilize digital processes to motivate reform.

With new will in mind, American universities need to respond to students who come up to me and say, in effect, I want to do Kerner, but I don’t feel prepared. How can I be effective? How can I have a career?

In response, I challenge the professors, deans and foundation executives in this audience, and across America, to answer such questions with new degree programs that spark the best and the brightest to study Kerner and inequality – rather than study finance or robotics.

Such Kerner new will degree programs need to integrate courses from Schools of Education and Schools of Criminal Justice. They need courses from departments of economics, sociology and urban planning. They need a good course in evaluation methods. They need courses in nonprofit management. They need courses from Schools of Communication that teach how to communicate what works not only on social media – but also on morning network talk programs. They need courses from Schools of Public Administration that follow the recent example of the Kennedy School. The Kennedy School recently appointed former NAACP executive director Cornell Brooks to a new professorship. He will convey evidence based expertise to social justice leaders, advocates and activists.

New will and a new people’s alliance can only be formed outside of Washington. But legislation and funding must build on good government. Good government and Franklin Roosevelt brought us the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security. Good government and Dwight Eisenhower paved the Interstate Highway System. Good government, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey secured the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. Good government now must invest in Kerner priorities at a scale equal to the dimensions of the problem.

Investing to scale and creating new will should be evidence based. But it should not be elitist. With passion, we must appeal to the hearts of Americans through convincing narratives of how real people benefit from what works.

With that passion, 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?

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report was published by Temple University Press in 2018. See:

The Eisenhower Foundation is the private sector continuation of the 1967-1968 Kerner Commission, as well as the 1968-1969 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. See:

President of the Eisenhower Foundation, Alan Curtis was a task force co-director on the National Violence Commission and executive director of President Jimmy Carter’s Urban Policy Group. He has authored or co-authored many books, including Healing Our Divided Society, as well as American Violence and Public Policy. He holds an A.B. in Economics from Harvard, an M.Sc. in Economics from the University of London and a Ph.D. in Criminology and Urban Policy from the University of Pennsylvania.