Spotlight Exclusives

Kerner Commission findings still resonate more than 50 years later

Alan Curtis Alan Curtis, posted on

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.  Spotlight recently spoke with Alan Curtis, the president of the Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the original Commission, about what the foundation is doing in 2020 to try to bring the still-vital lessons of the Kerner Commission to bear as America grapples with a pandemic and a crisis over racial justice and equality. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How has the Kerner Commission work made the transition into the pandemic and the latest crisis about racial justice and equity?

We started with what the commission said about white racism and America heading toward two societies, separate and unequal.  The historical relevance was that the Kerner commissioners were mostly privileged white men, and yet they found common ground on their  “separate and unequal” conclusions. When I talk to some of my historian friends, they say one reason why these members of the white establishment came together was they actually accepted evidence and they actually went out to Milwaukee and Newark and Detroit and they saw things for themselves. That to me is very relevant in terms of what’s happening and not happening in America today.

When the Kerner Commission came out, Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Senator (Robert) Kennedy both endorsed its recommendations, and then they were assassinated. LBJ formed another commission, the National Violence Commission, which endorsed the findings of the Kerner Commission. The National Violence Commission also said in 1968 that most great civilizations have declined not so much from external threat but from internal decay. That’s also relevant today, in terms of the challenges within, the threat of internal decay.

Speaking around the country, we have shared that, in the last 50 years, income and wealth inequality have gone up, deep poverty has gone up, public school segregation has gone up, and mass incarceration of people of color has exploded.  People of color obviously understand the structural racism.  But we have found that many white audiences, sadly, don’t.  That brings us back to the importance of evidence — and it motivates us to continue to try to speak out on what really happened and what is really happening today.   We also point out that we’ve actually learned a lot in the last 50 years — about what policies work and don’t work. We’ve found many audiences aren’t aware of this evidence, or are in denial, or just don’t care. Going back to the original findings of the Kerner Commission, we find the importance of evidence at this moment in time is crucial – evidence on the problems and the solutions.

How does the commission’s work resonate with the pandemic?

It seems to us the pandemic is the best example of the failure of evidence-based policy. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting people of color, the Americans who were the focus of the Kerner Commission. The pandemic has created a recession. Economic policy was one of the central priorities of the Kerner Commission. So, as we continue to speak around the country, we’re saying economic policy in 2020 needs to be focused on many of the same issues the Commission focused on 50 years ago – health care for workers, living wages, job creating through infrastructure repair, job training. All of those policies need to be on the forefront, and they certainly need to replace supply-side, trickle-down economics. When Dr. King was assassinated, right after the Kerner Commission report came out, he was moving beyond the civil rights movement. He was advocating a coalition for economic justice that embraced all races and most classes. And that really needs to be central in our economic policy today.  Our problems in 2020 are about both race and class. So, we are totally for strategies that eliminate systemic racism — and they need to be integrated with supportive economic policy.

The Kerner Commission was also very critical of the police, and as we see the legacy of Ferguson play out in Louisville and Minneapolis and Kenosha the need is clear today for police reform, sentencing reform, and reform of how prosecutors act. The focus on criminal justice in 2020 is so relevant to the Kerner Commission.  Our foundation has done a lot of work, for example, on genuine community-police partnerships across the country, with African-American, Latinx and white populations in various places.  Indigenous, nonprofit organizations are equal partners with the police in these programs.  Civilians and police mentor young people and reduce crime. It can be done. We need to dialogue with Black Lives Matter and other groups in the African-American community on the possibility of such reforms. If you take public health policy, criminal justice policy and economic policy in 2020, they’re all so relevant to the Kerner Commission, and that provides the rationale for us to continue to advocate for lessons learned.

Some of this evidence has been around for 50 years – but we’re still dealing with problems that were prevalent when the original commission was working. How can the foundation help to build the will to put this evidence into practice?

As I talk around the country, the lack of what the Kerner Commission called “new will” is the dilemma that stumps people the most. Citizens were already frustrated and reluctant and searching for how to create new will – and then the frustration increased because of the pandemic. We continue to speak out, but virtual presentations can’t generate the energy of in-person presentations.  Creating new will is a long-term enterprise, but there are some strategies we think move us in a positive direction. Advocating for a more responsive democracy is really important – voting rights reform, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering reform.  Particularly this last year, we have been saying, as well, that creation of new will begins with the success of Black Lives Matter and the success of Rev. (William) Barber’s Poor People’s Moral Revival Campaign. The progress those two organizations stands out. Dr. King said we needed to have a coalition of all races and most classes, so basic organizing and constituency building with an array of new constituencies that join with Black Lives and Dr. Barber is needed. Hopefully the new infusion of money by foundations to organizers of color will help that process. But the advocacy needs to be better coordinated. There’s also promising work being done by the Mellon Foundation with artists, performers, writers, and other people in the humanities. Leaders in the humanities and arts can change American culture in ways that create new will.

And we need more dialogue on what systemic change means. I don’t think it means wearing new t-shirts or having corporations sponsor feel-good public relations commercials. Systemic change is about creating living wages, creating health care for all, creating equity in public school finance.  I’m just worried about co-option and sloganeering. I think we also need to regulate Facebook and the other social media platforms.  The hatred and violence that are being created by white supremacists need to be addressed in a mature, adult way.

New will needs good government. The whole notion from the ‘60s of government service as a higher calling, of “ask what you can do for your country,” has been lost in the 21st century. I hope the pandemic has shown us the need for new activist government, but what happens after the pandemic ends? We have to seize the moment – to construct good government that creates trust and then new will.

One final question. What’s your level of optimism that this is a moment when the values and policy proposals of the Kerner Commission can finally break through after all these years?

I think this continues to be a long-term venture – and that means five and ten and 50 and 100 years.  It’s not going to be easy, but I’m cautiously optimistic about the American idea and experiment over the long run.

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