Alan Curtis interviewed by Tim Farley. Sirius XM. April 4, 2018


Politics of the United States

The Kerner Commission Fifty Years Later

Tim Farley Interview with Alan Curtis

April 4, 2018


Tim Farley: It was 50 years ago. It was actually longer than that when President Lyndon Johnson announced that he wanted a Commission to look in to the violence in the country. It was on July the 27th in 1967 that President Johnson made this announcement:

(Recording) Lyndon Johnson: Innocent people, Negro and white, have been killed. Damage to property owned by Negroes and white is calamitous. Worst of all, fear and bitterness which have been loosed will take long months to erase. The criminals who committed these acts of violence against the people deserve to be punished and they must be punished. Explanations may be offered, but nothing can excuse what they have done. There will be attempts to interpret the events of the past few days. But when violence strikes, then those in public responsibility have an immediate and a very different job, not to analyze but to end disorder.

Tim Farley: It was the summer, very, very dark and very, very violent summer, in places like Detroit and Newark that had witnessed those riots. And so it was on February the 29th, it was a leap year, February the 29th of 1968 when the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, who was the chair of the Kerner Commission, made this announcement:

(Recording) Otto Kerner: Our nation is moving toward two societies: one black, one white, separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division.

Tim Farley: As our next guest notes, the Kerner Commission recommended massive and sustained investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Have we made progress in the last 50 years? Let’s see if we can answer that question with Alan Curtis, President/CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation. He’s tweeting @EisenhowerFndt. Alan Curtis, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Alan Curtis: Thank you for having me.

Tim Farley: All right. So let’s talk a bit about this. What kind of investments, the investments in jobs and education? Were there specifics from the Kerner Commission about what kinds of investments those should be?

Alan Curtis: Well, the Kerner Commission focused on job training that was linked to job placement and job creation. That was very important because the gap between black and white unemployment was two to one, and so we never really had a full employment economy for all the people in this country. The need for employment was combined with the need for public education investments that created equity among public schools and also integrated the schools to produce better performance by students. Those were the kinds of employment and education investments that were given priority. But, as we have evolved over the last 50 years, there have been many other kinds of investments that also seemed to be really essential.

For example, zero tolerance policing has failed, but community-based policing has been successful in securing neighborhoods and encouraging community based housing rehabilitation, which creates jobs for people working in impoverished communities. And young people in those communities can qualify for those jobs if they stay in high school, and that can be facilitated by nonprofit organizations providing mentoring afterschool. K to 12 mentoring can be combined with preschool programs like Head Start, which are very cost effective investments.

So what you have is a range of employment, education, and criminal justice innovations that have proven to work. We are saying today is that we need to scale up what works and finance it by scaling down what doesn’t work, like tax breaks for the rich and prison building for the poor.

Tim Farley: You noted in the piece that you co wrote with Fred Harris in The New York Times, “The Unmet Promise of Equality,” that the bipartisan Kerner Commission was mostly composed of moderate white men, who were members of the political establishment. Their recommendations attracted widespread public debate. The paperback edition of the report sold over two million copies. Do you think that they did a good job in identifying the problems that existed then or not?

Alan Curtis: I think they did a surprisingly good job considering they were members of the establishment and there were other interpretations of why the protest occurred in 1967. There was a lot of debate then, but time has proved that Kerner Commission members were right on target. They were focusing, as you said, Tim, on poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. And just look what has happened in the last 50 years. Overall child poverty has increased. Deep poverty, the poorest of the poor has increased. Income inequality has increased. Wealth inequality has increased. Zero tolerance policing, as I’ve said, has been racially biased and has failed.

What do we have now? Instead of 200,000 people in prison back at the time of the Kerner Commission and Dr. King, we now have 1,400,000 people in prison. Sentencing is racially biased in many ways. Prison building has become our national housing policy for the poor.

Tim Farley: President Johnson asked in July of 1967 that this Commission be formed and to do its work. On February 29, 1968, the Commission announced what it had found. Then it was in April of 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And I wonder, did Dr. King’s assassination further increase the interest in doing more? Did it sort of add momentum, or did it maybe call into question some of the findings of the Kerner Commission?

Alan Curtis: The Commission came out with its findings in late February. Dr. King endorsed those findings, and few weeks later he was assassinated. That was shortly followed by the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. I think that much of the momentum of reform as discussed by the Kerner Commission really evaporated in that terrible year of 1968. We didn’t make the progress that Dr. King and Senator Kennedy would have wanted.

When he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King was saying he wanted to expand from a civil rights movement to an economic justice movement that would embrace the poor, the working class, and the middle class of all races. That movement has yet to evolve, although there are some emerging leaders like Reverend William Barber in North Carolina who today are heading a new Poor People’s Campaign, which will carry into Washington on Mother’s Day this year. The Campaign is saying, in effect, that we know a great deal about what works, but what we lack is new will. The Kerner Commission talked about the need for new will - new political will to legislate and advocate for what works. That new will hasn’t evolved in the last 50 years and is in many ways our major challenge. The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is lack of political will.

Tim Farley: Once again, we are speaking with Alan Curtis, President/CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation, co author of an op ed in The New York Times, “The Unmet Promise of Equality,” and co-author of Healing Our Divided Society, a fifty year Kerner Commission update book that has just been published.

You made an important point a moment ago. At the time of his assassination, Dr. King was in Memphis to speak out for sanitation workers who wanted a 10 cent an hour raise. Dr. King was shifting his message to economic injustice. Looking at your op-ed, seems to me that race and economic inequality are still in some ways inextricably intertwined, and I wonder why you think that is.

Alan Curtis: Because we still have racist attitudes in America today. Back in 1968 when Dr. King was speaking, the African American unemployment rate was twice the white rate. And in every year since then, over the last 50 years, that two to one ratio of black to white unemployment has been maintained. Now, why is that? That can’t be just by chance. That has to do with the racial realities of America. But the hope is that we can form the kind of coalition Dr. King was talking about – that truly does incorporate people of all races. That’s the real challenge today.

For example, 18 million whites in this country live in poverty. There’s no reason why they should not be part of a coalition that works to reduce poverty, inequality, and racial injustice in America. Young people are protesting in Florida over gun violence, but they’ve also been protesting over college costs and many other issues that are close to the priorities of the Kerner Commission. So we really need the new economic justice coalition that Dr. King talked about and we need whites to join it. We need millennials and young people to join it. We need the women’s movement to be part of it. We need immigrants to be part of it. That coalition building is the way we can then generate the new will that Dr. King and the Kerner Commission talked about as necessary to implement what we know to work.

Tim Farley: As what you and Fred Harris both wrote, you say 50 years later, we’re figuring out what worked. Policies based on ideology instead of evidence don’t work. Privatization and funding cuts instead of expanding effective programs, that’s not working. We’re living, as you wrote, with the human costs of these failed approaches. The Kerner ethos, everyone does better when everyone does better, has been for many decades supplanted by its opposite. You’re on your own.

You pointed out that small grudging increases in the minimum wage don’t work. What does: substantial increases to the minimum wage. You note that racial segregation in schools and neighborhoods does not work. Racial integration does work. I wonder if we need to move away from institutions that are there even if it’s for the benefit of minority groups because they do make a distinction. They do have a place where you go that others are not part of.

For example, historically, black colleges and universities have been important parts of growth in this country, but I wonder if the time has come to move away from that sort of a segregation, albeit one that in some ways is voluntary.

Alan Curtis: For a time after the Kerner Commission, we did proceed with more equitable financing of public schools, and with integration of public schools. That worked in terms of outcomes like improved school performance. So we have on record that sort of investment in human capital – it does function and it’s inclusive.

What then happened, especially in the 1980s, is that we moved in the opposite direction, away from equity in public school financing and away from public school integration. We need more inclusiveness in education, as well as the employment, criminal justice and housing policies set out in our update of Kerner Commission.

Tim Farley: Bottom line, it seems to me that you are saying that an economically successful class in this country regardless of race, will make a difference. If people have jobs, if they can make a decent living, that that solves a world of problems.

Alan Curtis: We agree with the common sense of David Letterman’s Mom. If we invest in people and we provide them with opportunity, they have a better chance for a decent life.

Tim Farley: One of the more interesting parts of your Kerner Commission update is that segregation is not just a problem of the South. For example, looking at the most segregated states in 2011 and 2012, in the top 10, places like Florida, and New Jersey, and Illinois, Connecticut, New York, California, they’re all there.

Alan Curtis: I grew up in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, where I lived, it’s extremely segregated.

Tim Farley: So we hope for solutions, and maybe 50 years from now you and I will revisit. I kind of doubt that, but hopefully somebody will be continuing to watch and much more progress will be made. I do appreciate you joining us, Alan Curtis.

Alan Curtis: Thank you for having me, Tim.

Tim Farley: Alan Curtis, co author with Fred Harris of “The Unmet Promise of Equality,” an interesting op-ed in The New York Times. I can tweet out the op-ed and I probably should so you can take a look at it. He is the President/CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation on this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the findings of the Kerner Commission, which was formed by then President Lyndon Johnson to find the underlying causes of the violence of 1967. We look at it, and with fresh eyes we can see that not a lot has changed. At the core, there’s still this undertone of racism as well as poverty, and it is keeping this country from realizing its full potential. The causes may be different, but it’s worth the discussion. And still, 50 years later, unfortunately, we’re still having to discuss the problem.

Note: This is an edit of the interview with Tim Farley. For the New York Times op ed, see: For Healing Our Divided Society, the Fifty Year Update of the Kerner Commission, see: