Presentation by Alan Curtis to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Washington DC, on July 13, 2018

Healing Our Divided Society



Presentation To The United States Commission on Civil Rights


Alan Curtis


The Eisenhower Foundation




July 13, 2018

Washington, DC



Presentation by Alan Curtis to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Washington DC, on July 13, 2018
Presentation by Alan Curtis to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Washington DC, on July 13, 2018

Thank you to Chair Lhamon and to all the members of the Commission for this opportunity to dialogue with you.

Perhaps appropriate to the times we live in, today is Friday the Thirteenth. But tomorrow is Bastille Day. There is hope.

With your permission, I would like to share with you, briefly, the conclusions and recommendations of the Eisenhower Foundation’s Fiftieth Anniversary Update of the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders – known as the Kerner Commission, after its Chair, Otto Kerner, then-governor of Illinois.

Protests in hundreds of American cities led President Lyndon Johnson to form the Kerner Commission. Its final report was leaked to Washington Post Editor Ben Bradley in late February of 1968. The Bantam paperback became one of the all-time best selling federal Commission reports. Over two million copies were sold.

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

It was, said the Commission, “time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens – urban and rural, White and Black, Spanish surname, American Indian and every minority group.”

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 the Eisenhower Foundation’s 2018 fifty year update, titled, Healing Our Divided Society, 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. We have seen the film Black Panther. We have seen the film Dolores.

Yet, as Mr. Baldwin did before him, Mr. Coates speaks truth to power. Today, 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 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 – and that housing policy has included conscious, purposeful government-created segregation, as Richard Rothstein has eloquently documented in his new 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. 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. Although there is a long way to go, a movement is emerging today to base policy on evidence, not ideology. We ask that the United States Commission on Civil Rights work with us in further expanding the evidence based movement – which, for example, encourages randomized control or at least quasi-experimental design evaluations of public and private initiatives that further Kerner priorities.

In terms of those 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. 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 the 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.

Reinforcing a Rand Corporation evaluation of successfully integrated low income housing in Montgomery County Maryland, a Harvard evaluation in five other cities found that children whose families moved from high poverty housing projects to neighborhoods with good jobs and schools grew up to be better educated and more economically successful adults. Legislation to build on these findings now at least is being debated in 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 all have reduced their prison populations by about twenty five percent in recent years, with little or no increase in crime.

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 – and where variations on the Japanese model of neighborhood police ministations are replicated.
  • Such truly innovative community based policing should encourage the kind of community based banking that was so successful before the regressive policies of the 1980s.
  • The community banking should encourage community economic development corporations 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 Center for Employment Opportunities in New York.
  • 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 youth at risk of dropping out.
  • Such 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 – like trickle down supply side tax breaks for the rich, prison building for the poor, zero tolerance policing, school vouchers, 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 report on what works. A good model is how the New York Times covered our Kerner Fiftieth Update 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 neatly 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 will increase American soft power globally. Progress in achieving these goals will communicate to Russia, China and the rest of the world how American values matter. As Nobel Prize winning economist and Kerner Fiftieth contributor Joseph Stiglitz has reminded us, America is in great need of such new soft power.
Accordingly, we encourage the Commission on Civil Rights to join us in furthering Kerner priorities by keeping both domestic and foreign policy goals in mind. With skilled guidance, it may be possible for a coalition of American leaders on both sides of the aisle to cooperate on a Kerner-generated increase in soft power that contrasts to the continuing human rights atrocities in China and Russia.

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 liberalism without elitism. And populism without racism. 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. Both Chair Lhamon and Reverend Barber were keynoters at the Forum in Washington that launched our Kerner Fiftieth Update.

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 LGBTQ Movement.

Surely the generation of new will can 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.

These reforms are difficult to achieve. But, as the Center for Responsive Politics has argued, we must continue to carefully document campaign finance abuses. The documentation is needed to eventually persuade Americans of good faith on both sides of the aisle that enough is enough.

The generation of new will also will be facilitated through more funding by American foundations to educate citizens on how to run for local, state and national office. More support is needed for organizations like Wellstone Action, Emily’s List, Higher Heights, Run for Something, the Latino Victory Project and Emerge.

American foundations equally need to increase support for advocacy on media reform. 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. And we need 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 amen corners and their own hermetically sealed bubbles.

This, then, is an ambitious agenda, but a vital undertaking at the present moment in the history of American democracy. We respectfully ask the Commission on Civil Rights to creatively partner with us in pursuing the agenda and in therefore generating new will.

New will and a new Kerner and people’s alliance can only be formed outside of Washington. But legislation and funding must build on good government. Good government and President Roosevelt brought us the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security. Good government paved the Interstate Highway System. Good government legislated 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.

The Kerner and people’s alliance needs to be evidence based – but not elitist. We must appeal to the hearts of Americans in order to illustrate what works. We must appeal to the hearts of Americans with stories of how real people benefit from what works. There are so many positive human narratives generated by success. We can be both passionate and factually accurate.

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.