Lessons for Healing Our Divided Society: A Conversation with Alan Curtis

Editor’s note: The following interview with Alan Curtis, President of the Eisenhower Foundation, originally was published by Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity. It is cross-posted here with permission.

In 1968 the Kerner Commission concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The commission had been established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the origins of the 1967 race riots. To commemorate the 50thanniversary of the publication, the Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the original Commission, released an update of the report entitled “Healing Our Divided Society.” Spotlight recently spoke with Eisenhower President Alan Curtis, who also worked on President Johnson’s National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, about the updated report, how they are trying to use it to engage the public in dialogue and discussion, and how the country has changed over the past fifty years. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little bit about the 50th anniversary update to the Kerner Commission.

The original Kerner Commission said we hadn’t been making much progress in erasing poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Unfortunately, this 50th anniversary report is saying progress has stagnated in a lot of ways and in some ways we have moved backwards. The new report received a lot of good media coverage, and it seemed like it caught on in some ways as a 50-year measure of where the country is at. So, we followed up the publication of the update with forums around the country. We have at least 60 planned and will continue to add more in 2019 and 2020.

What are some of the major themes from the most recent report?

I see three major focus areas:

Since the Kerner Commission, child poverty has increased, overall poverty has increased, income inequality has increased, wealth inequality has increased, school segregation has increased, and incarceration has increased. We had 200,000 people in prison in ’68 and over two million now. What we’ve found is that when the audience is people of color, they understand we are going backwards, but many other people don’t get it, are in denial, or don’t want to do anything about it. Communicating to the American people that things haven’t gotten better and to try and engage them in a conversation is really central.

The second of the three themes is that we have learned a considerable amount about what works and what doesn’t work. However, policymakers rarely base programs around actual evidence. We argue there is a great deal of evidence about what works that can be incorporated into policy changes

The third theme is even if we convince people to scale up what works, we don’t have what the Kerner Commission called “new will,” the will of American people to legislate and fund it. That is, in my view, the biggest issue. Back in 1968, Dr. King was talking about a new economic justice coalition, and that notion was picked up by Senator Robert Kennedy, yet nothing happened in ‘68. Both men were assassinated that year and any sense of that economic justice coalition evaporated. We haven’t regained that to this day. The closest person to Dr. King in many ways is Reverend William Barber. It’s disappointing as we go around the country that people don’t respond to how to create new will. Reverend Barber is inspirational, but he’s pushing the rock up the hill.

President Lyndon Johnson with members of the Kerner Commission

Do you see any signs of hope? I know you work with lots of young people, do you get better responses from them?

The answer is a cautious yes. We want to do a lot more work with young people. We issued this update last February, and one of the first places we went to was the LBJ School at the University of Texas-Austin. After I presented, I had several grad students say in effect, “we really want to do this Kerner stuff, but we don’t know how to get credentialed or know how to do it.”

If you want to know rules, go to law school. If you want to heal, go to medical school. But if you want to heal our divided society, there are no real programs on how to do that.

There are a lot of things you’d need to combine for this. You need to learn some of the theory, but not too much. What you need to learn is what works and what doesn’t in economic policy, education policy, criminal justice policy, housing policy, and neighborhood policy, but even that’s not enough, because schools don’t teach how to communicate what works.

You mentioned earlier policies that have been shown to work, what are one or two examples of this?

The Kerner Commission in 1968 led with economic and education policies. On economic policy, the evidence is pretty clear that Keynesian demand-side policies that invest in human capital have worked better than supply side trickle-down economics focused on the top. People like Jared Bernstein have written books comparing those models. States like Kansas have tried the trickle-down model with disastrous results.

In education policy, the broad theme is to invest in schools, public school equity, teachers, and community schools, as opposed to supply-side privatization vouchers and charter schools.

Community-focused initiatives are important, and all of these ideas can build on each other. Community-based policing can stabilize neighborhoods to facilitate community-based banking. Community-based banking and investing money in neighborhoods can be connected with community housing and that housing can be linked to school integration and the building of that housing can generate well-planned jobs for people in the community. So, if you can combine these different policies in targeted locations, there’s plenty of evidence to show it works.

How do you think the original members of the commission would react to the progress, or lack thereof, over the last fifty years?

Not very well, that’s for sure. Most of the people on the original commission were privileged white men. You might not have expected a report like the one they created. But they managed to look at evidence and conclude that the protests of the ‘60s were not because of outside agitators, but from white racism. That was powerful. And the report sold two million paperback copies. Although the Kerner Commission proposed investing in human capital, nothing came of it. The Johnson administration was out of power in 1968, and the next administrations talked about the silent majority, called for a war on drugs, and argued for harsher criminal justice policies. I think the commission would be saddened by the direction we ended up going.

Alan Curtis is President of the Eisenhower Foundation