Healing Our Divided Society:
Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report
Following the terrible summer of 1967 disorders in many American cities, like Detroit and Newark, then-President Lyndon Johnson appointed a bipartisan citizens investigative commission, the Kerner Commission, to analyze the sources of unrest and propose solutions.
On February 29, 1968, the Commission issued its historic report which concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.
” The Commission recommended significant, long-run, federal government-led investments reducing poverty, income inequality, wealth inequality and racial injustice in America.
Healing Our Divided Society is a 50-year update of the Kerner Commission, a kind of Kerner Report 2.0, edited by Fred Harris, former U.S. Senator and the last surviving member of the Commission, and Alan Curtis, President of Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the Commission—along with contributions by a 23-member National Advisory Council of distinguished Americans, including Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and Stanford University Professor Emeritus and Learning Policy Institute President Linda Darling-Hammond.
“In Healing Our Divided Society,” writes former Secretary of State John Kerry, “Senator Harris and Dr. Curtis have curated brilliant pieces authored by a diverse group of respected experts and activists, to examine the places we’ve gone wrong and wrestle with what we must do to live up to the promise of our country, and respond at last to the alarm bell of the Kerner Report.
” Occupied by the Vietnam War and concerned about the legacy of his domestic policy, President Johnson rejected the “two societies” warning. But leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy strongly endorsed the Kerner Report in 1968.
Since then, Healing Our Divided Society concludes that there has been only some progress, much of it in the late 1960s and in the 1970s—yet we have learned what works and must assemble “new will” among a broad-based coalition of Americans to legislate a better life for the poor, working class and middle class of all races in the nation.
Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have elected an African-American president. There has been an increase in the number of other African-American and
Hispanic/Latino elected officials and an expansion of the African-American and Hispanic/Latino middle class.
Yet there has not been nearly enough progress, and, in some ways, things have gotten no better or have gotten worse over the last 50 years.
There is still far too much discrimination on the basis of color:
- “Zero tolerance” policing against people of color has failed, and there is too much excessive use of force by police, too often deadly force, especially against African
- White supremacists have become emboldened and more violent.
- Housing and schools have been re-segregating, locking too many people of color into slums and their children into inferior schools.
We have not made progress on poverty, and much has gotten worse:
- The percentage of American children living in poverty increased from 15.6 percent in 1968 to 21.0 percent in 2017. Our child poverty rate is the highest among industrialized
- The percentage of Americans living in deep or extreme poverty—that is, less than halfthe poverty threshold—has increased since 1975.
- As the nation has grown, our overall poverty rate has stubbornly remained virtually the same—12.8 percent in 1968 and 12.7 percent in 2016—while the total number of the
poor has increased from 25.4 million to 40.6 million
Inequality has increased, and the rich have profited at the expense of the families of salaried and working people in America:
- In the 1970s the richest 1 percent of Americans took home less than 9 percent of our national income. By 2016 they took home 24 percent.
- Today 52 percent of all new income in America goes to the top 1 percent.
- In 2016 the median white household earned $65,051, the median Hispanic/Latino household $57,675 and the median African-American household $39,490.
- The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans today own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. As of 2013, median white wealth was 12 times that of median African-
- Since the early 1970’s the African-American unemployment rate has been about twice the white unemployment rate. In 2016 the African-American unemployment rate was
higher than the white unemployment rate at all education levels.
- In 1967 the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was about 25 to 1. In 2015 the ratio was about 275 to 1.
- Labor union membership declined from about 25 percent in 1973 to about 6 percent in 2015, weakening the bargaining power of workers and contributing to the suppression of wages.
After a dramatic decline in school segregation, especially in the South, discontinuance of desegregation assistance and court orders in many districts, coupled with residential resegregation, has re-segregated public schools:
- In 1988, just over a third of African-American students (and just over 20 percent in the South) attended intensely segregated schools (where students of color constituted 90
percent or more of the total). By 2010, that proportion nationally was 40 percent—and was 50 percent in the Northeast.
- High-poverty schools are almost entirely populated by African American and Hispanic/Latino students, while low-poverty schools have very few such students. A majority of African-American and Hispanic/Latino students attend public schools where 75 percent of students are poor.
- Today, half as many African-American students attend majority white schools (just over 20 percent) as did in 1988 (44 percent).
- Because of Great Society and War on Poverty policies, the African-American achievement gap in reading decreased by half during the 1970s and early 1980s. But with
the elimination of major federal programs and resources during the 1980s, the achievement gap in reading grew once again and is now 30 percent larger than it was 30
- High rates of poverty, housing segregation, and economic polarization have left most African-American and Hispanic/Latino students marooned in schools where economic
struggle is the rule and financial stability is very much the exception.
- Today, the gap between poorer and richer students in access to qualified teachers in America is among the highest in the world.
Whereas the Kerner Commission called for “massive and sustained” investment in economic, employment and education initiatives, over the last 50 years America has pursued “massive and sustained” incarceration framed as “law and order,” while the “war on drugs” has failed:
- A mass incarceration system and prison-industrial complex has increased the American prison population from about 200,000 at the time of the Kerner Commission to about 1.4 million today. The prison population is disproportionately African American and Hispanic-Latino. African-American men are nearly 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as
white men. Hispanic/Latino men are 2.3 times as likely. The United States has by far the highest rate of incarceration among industrialized democracies.
- Today, the reported American murder rate is close to the reported murder rates of the 1960s, in spite of the enormous increase in the prison population. And today’s murder rate would be higher were it not for improvement in medical treatment of victims of violence, especially gun violence, since the Kerner Report. The American reported homicide rate is much higher than in most industrialized democracies.
- Mass incarceration has become a kind of housing policy for the poor. Only about a quarter of Americans eligible for low income housing assistance in communities receive it. There has been a dramatic reduction in low income housing over recent years and a government led failure to enforce fair housing.
The Kerner Commission concluded that the media failed to report adequately on the realities and underlying causes of poverty, inequality and racial injustice. Fifty years later, there has been little progress. The media underreport continuing, everyday realities. In media culture, occurrences considered commonplace and expected (like poverty, inequality and racism) typically are not considered news. For the most part, news is reserved for events that are considered relatively rare and unexpected. For example, “zero tolerance,” excessive police force has been poorly covered in the media. It has taken cell-phone recordings by citizens to make the media more aware of what has been happening. These media failures have been compounded by the highly partisan media environment that has developed since the Kerner Commission and by the echo chambers created by Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Nonetheless, since the Kerner Commission, a new movement has begun to base policy and programs on scientific evidence, not ideology. To a considerable extent, we now know what works to reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice. National evidence-based policy needs to replicate what works at “a scale equal to the dimension of the problems,” to quote the Kerner Commission. Reform needs to be financed by eliminating what doesn’t work and by raising taxes on the rich and large corporations.
In Healing Our Divided Society, just a few examples of what works for middle-class, workingclass and poor Americans of all races include full employment policy via rebuilding infrastructure, job training linked to job placement, a substantial increase in the minimum wage, the strengthening of labor unions, single payer health care, globalization trade accords that respect workers’ rights, education policy focused on integration and more equitable public school funding as well as on improved training and equitable distribution of teachers, the scaling up of successes like Head Start and Job Corps, replication of many other proven national evidence-based models like Youth Build and Quantum Opportunities, and community-based policing in which officers actually partner with local nonprofit youth development organizations in poor and working-class neighborhoods.
The editors of and contributors to Healing Our Divided Society encourage the media to dramatically increase coverage of what works.
Policies and programs that don’t work, and that should be eliminated, include the supply side, trickle-down economics for the rich that caused the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Supply side education vouchers, “welfare reform” (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — TANF), ineffective and often racist “zero tolerance” policing and mass incarceration are among the many other examples of what doesn’t work documented in Healing Our Divided Society.
Yet Harris, Curtis and the Kerner National Advisory Council recognize that American policy based on scaling up what works and shutting down what doesn’t work can only happen through the generation of what the Kerner Commission called “new will” among the American people.
Healing Our Divided Society advocates for core constituencies to coalesce in the creation of that “new will” today. The constituencies include poor and working-class whites and people of color who recognize Dr. King was right in saying economic justice needs to be multiracial, average citizens who agree with Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign against the immorality of poverty and inequality, white Americans who understand that 18 million whites live in poverty (compared to 12 million Hispanic/Latinos and 10 million African Americans), middle-class Americans who realize their interests are much closer to Kerner priorities than to the very rich, millennials who in 2016 rallied against corporate greed and the high costs of college loans, a strengthened coalition of women of all races building on the Women’s March, the LGBT community, immigrants — and all other citizens who accept “we’re in this together” and reject the “you’re on your own” supply side naysaying ideology of the rich.
Healing Our Divided Society points out, as well, that the generation of “new will” must be facilitated by campaign finance reform, voting rights reform, an end to gerrymandering and abolition of the Electoral College.
Healing Our Divided Society release Information:
Published by Temple University Press, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Commission will be released on Tuesday, February 27, 2018, at a National Forum at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The book is co-edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis and includes 23 chapters from contributing experts.
Fred Harris is a former U.S. Senator, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of New Mexico, and the sole surviving member of the Kerner Commission. He is the author of The New Populism and co-editor of Quiet Riots: Race and Poverty in the United States: The Kerner Report Twenty Years Later.
Alan Curtis is President and CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation. He was Executive Director of President Jimmy Carter’s Urban Policy Group and is editor of American Violence and Public Policy and Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense: Restoring America’s Promise at Home and Abroad. He is replicating the Quantum Opportunities evidence-based model that graduates at-risk youth from high school in low-income communities.
The Eisenhower Foundation’s work on the Kerner Fiftieth book, the Washington, D.C., Forum and other forums around the nation in 2018 is being funded by, alphabetically, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
On February 28, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond will lead a one-day forum on Education Policy and the Kerner Commission – at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the editors, contributing authors include: Oscar Perry Abello, Elijah Anderson, Anil N.F. Aranha, Jared Bernstein, Henry G. Cisneros, Elliott Currie, Linda Darling-Hammond, Martha F. Davis, E. J. Dionne, Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, Delbert S. Elliott, Carol Emig, Jeff Faux, Ron Grzywinski, Michael P. Jeffries, Lamar K. Johnson, Celinda Lake, Marilyn Melkonian, Gary Orfield, Diane Ravitch, Laurie Robinson, Herbert C. Smitherman, Jr., Joseph Stiglitz, Dorothy Stoneman, Kevin Washburn, Valerie Wilson, Gary Younge, and Julian E. Zelizer.
Copies of Healing Our Divided Society can be obtained from local and online booksellers.
For further information, advance interviews with the co-editors and/or review copies, please contact:
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Learning Policy Institute
(202) 798-5595 office
(301) 467-2590 mobile