Presentation by Alan Curtis at the Kerner Fiftieth Forum Neighborhood Forum, Detroit, Michigan, on March 15, 2018

Remarks By Alan Curtis


The Eisenhower Foundation



Healing Our Divided Society

The Kerner Commission Fifty Years Later



Detroit Neighborhood Forum

The Kresge Foundation

Detroit, Michigan

March 15, 2018


Thank you to the Kresge Foundation and Rip Rapson for inviting me to this Forum.

Healing Our Divided Society, our fifty year update of the Kerner Commission, was made possible by the financial support of the Kresge Foundation, the Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.

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, 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 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 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 the failure of “welfare reform” in 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 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. As you well know, there is an emerging movement today to base policy on evidence, not ideology. I would encourage you 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 that 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 more, and much more equitable, financing of public schools and greatly improved training of public school teachers.

How does evidence based policy embrace specific neighborhood locations? Well, for example, 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 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 such youth development include YouthBuild and Quantum Opportunities. Afterschool 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, place based neighborhood 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 national 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 you know, 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. 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 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.

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 Woman’s movement and the LGBTQ rights movement.

What is the role of the philanthropic community in all of this, at such a critical juncture in American history?

Nationally and in Detroit, I suggest the philanthropic community needs to give equally high priority to evidence based assessment of what works and to the generation of new will.

The philanthropic community needs to support a continuing public dialogue on Kerner priorities and on how much more needs to be done.

The philanthropic community needs to support Reverend Barber and all groups that organize for multiracial and multiclass alliances to heal our divided society.

The philanthropic community needs to encourage constituencies like poor whites and outraged millennials to embrace Kerner priorities.

The philanthropic community needs to say we’re in this together – you’re not on your own.

The philanthropic community needs to enhance the institutional capacities of indigenous nonprofit neighborhood organizations, so they can more effectively replicate what works.

The philanthropic community needs to press law enforcement to create community policing that proceeds far, far beyond superficial public relations.

The philanthropic community needs to take seriously George Soros’ call for regulation of Facebook, Twitter and other high tech monoliths that create self-reinforcing echo chambers and hence more political division.

The philanthropic community needs to remind America that good government won World War II, developed the interstate highway system, created the internet, and passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the nineteen sixties. Good government must now invest in Kerner priorities and scale up what works.

The philanthropic community must act with focused passion – and 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: