Defining Interest Convergence
Critical race theorist, Derrick Bell, was the first tenured African-American professor of law at Harvard Law School. Acclaimed for greatly contributing to critical race theory, Bell is lauded for his ‘interest convergence’ dilemma (or theory) which followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating racial segregation of public schools come to an end.
Brown’s importance cannot be overstated. As Judge R.L. Carter stated, “Brown transformed blacks from beggars pleading for decent treatment to citizens demanding equal treatment under the law as their constitutionally recognized right.” But it can be argued that Brown’s power stops there. Despite the Supreme Court ruling that ‘separate but equal’ was unconstitutional, schools remain racially divided nonetheless. Bell’s argument is that the interest convergence dilemma dismantled Brown because white people too had something to gain, not solely because black people did.
The interest convergence dilemma states, “the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.” In simpler terms, white people will only adopt racial justice and equality when they recognize that it will benefit them. Thus, interest convergence implies that the power to ‘converge’ or create equality for oppressed people lies predominantly with, if not solely, the oppressor. Bell then went on to say that, “the fourteenth amendment, standing alone, will not authorize a judicial remedy providing effective racial equality for blacks where the remedy sought threatens the superior societal status of middle and upper class whites.” Again we see that the law alone would not provide for Brown’s outcome; there would need to be underlying motivators that allowed ‘the superior societal status of middle and upper class whites’ to not feel threatened.
And there were. Three things fueled Brown’s arrival: (1) The United States needed to gain credibility against the Communist Party; (2) black World War II veterans returning ‘home’ after risking their lives were denied equality; and (3) industrialization in the South would be harder to achieve with segregation present. Despite this convergence of white and black interests, Brown’s decision still invoked fear amongst whites, particularly those belonging to the lower class. As we saw with the 2016 election, poorer whites believed that middle and upper class whites would protect whiteness at all cost, regardless of access financial resources.
While Bell’s theory rests solely on the intersections of race, I argue that you can insert gender and come to a similar conclusion: the interest of transgender and queer people in achieving liberation will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of cisgender, heterosexual people. If we expand Bell’s framework to include race, class, gender, disability, education, and other intersectional identities individuals may hold, equity could be achieved so long as the oppressor loosens the noose.
The oppressed people can breathe the ‘free’ air because of tensions working against the oppressors’ persona; here, the societal value of not being an out-right bigot strengthens the superior ‘moral’ status, as opposed to Bell’s “superior social status.” An illustration of how those in power support liberation for transgender and gender nonconforming people are below.
First, Backlashes against HB2 by major corporations showing allied support are not done through altruism. Rather, their support – their taking the moral high ground – allows them to strengthen their superior moral status by being on the right side of history. While support is explicit by removing or refusing business in North Carolina, moral capital is gained through other channels too. With each letter of diversity supporting transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, there is a cost-benefit analysis that is conducted: Does supporting the marginalize diminish my company’s net value so much that I will reap no benefit?
Like poor whites in Brown’s era that associated more with their whiteness than their class, proponents of the gay rights movement have tried to protect their newly won marriage equality by showing allegiance to their cisgender bodies. Ostracizing themselves from queer and transgender people creates a false feeling of safeness that could be strip away should the cisgender, heterosexual people choose they have nothing left to gain from their inclusion.
Emory University could benefit greatly from allowing transgender and gender nonconforming liberation to take place on its campus. By adding gender neutral bathrooms to every building in the college, Emory is perceived to being ahead of the curve when it comes to access. Allowing students to exist authentically so they can thrive results in visible participation of transgender and gender nonconforming people in leadership positions. This visibility could Emory to be seen as, and hopefully become, an institution focused on equity and centering the voices of the most marginalized people on campus to effect positive changes that build up everyone.
A Problem with Bell’s Framework
And yet, in Bell’s framework, I struggle with defining the interest of transgender and queer people as liberation. Liberation’s core is freedom. Bell’s interest convergence dilemma only works if the oppressor maintains control securing that their superiority is not lost. Achieving social ‘advancements’ while still being controlled by your oppressor is simply moving ‘the chains from our feet to the bars in front of our faces.’ Liberation without freedom is not liberation; liberation without freedom is slavery.
The argument can be made that Bell concedes this notion. His usage of “accommodate[s]” draws this conclusion. Merriam-Webster defines accommodate as, “to make fit or suitable,” but both the connotation and denotation of ‘suitable’ leaves one feeling lackluster. Suitable racial equality ebbs and flows with what those in power see as important. There is no permanency and the oppressors power lurks constantly. If we truly want to see Emory’s campus change for the better, we must go further than Bell’s interest convergence theory.
How Your School Can Benefit From Implementing Bell’s Framework
Bringing the most disenfranchised people of your school to the table will radically change your school’s dynamic. Better representation of your school’s student body means inclusivity and equity can start to be achieved!