The Fatalistic Cynicism of Derrick Bell’s Interest Covergence Thesis
by Jonathan Church
Essay originally from Counterweight.
Part 1: Introduction
It might be said that a great deal of opposition to critical race theory (CRT), and the ongoing controversy over whether CRT is being taught in schools, is rooted in a perception that CRT is motivated by a racist belief that white people are bad people who refuse to take well- deserved responsibility for racial inequality. One does not have to spend a lot of time on Twitter, for example, to find instances of the belief that CRT is anti-white. There is also a prevalent belief that CRT is being taught in schools as part of an indoctrination campaign to convince white children that they should feel ashamed about their race. CRT proponents fire back by saying that it is ridiculous to claim that CRT is racist or anti-white. They also insist CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools.
CRT proponents correctly point out that CRT originally developed as a niche academic field devoted to the study of how racism is embedded in law and social institutions. An offshoot of Critical Legal Studies, CRT embraces legal realism, which is the idea that law is intimately connected to social interests and social policy, and rejects legal formalism, which is the idea that the law should be independent of social interests and social policy. CRT was born in part as an attempt to examine how law is not a neutral and perfectly rational arbiter of disputes about racial injustice.
In addition, CRT proponents are correct that CRT is not racist or anti-white in the sense that it is some fantastical offshoot, for example, of a chapter in Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. This chapter told the story of how an exiled black scientist named Yakub, exiled by a peaceful all-black world, got revenge by setting up an island regime and selectively breeding a white race which invaded the black mainland, set up white rule, and brutally oppressed the black race.
Nonetheless, CRT critics have a point. CRT is not an outright war on white people, but it does lend itself to a defeatism which cannot help but look resentfully upon America’s “white” society. For example, in a 1995 Denver Law Review paper, law professor Leroy D. Clark laments the futility of CRT founder Derrick Bell’s view that racism is a permanent feature of American society. “Professor Bell”, he writes, “tries heroically, but I believe futilely, to avoid the despair which he knows naturally flows from his thesis” by claiming “one attains a certain freedom simply from knowing the truth and deciding to struggle on anyway.” Moreover, “[t]elling whites that they are irremediably racist is not mere ‘information’; it is a force that helps create the future it predicts. If whites believe the message, feelings of futility could overwhelm any further efforts to seek change.”
On the latter point, CRT lends itself to an insidious subtext which holds white people in decidedly low esteem with respect to their commitment to racial justice. It is not “holding white people to account” that is problematic. It is instead CRT’s fatalistic subtext that holds racism to be not simply a matter of individual prejudice writ large on society, but an inherently systemic feature of society’s institutions. These institutions are capable of marginal improvement to the extent they are politically confronted on an ongoing basis – that is, if they are incessantly problematized. Yet there is no possible attainment of “justice” as a lasting equilibrium because racism perpetually recycles itself via the ideological and discursive practices of white supremacy.
It is too much for this already-lengthy essay to delve into the history of ideas that informs this fatalistic foundation of critical race theory. But we can obtain more than a glimpse by shedding light on a central tenet of CRT – what CRT founder Derrick Bell calls the “interest convergence dilemma.”
What Is the Interest Convergence Thesis?
According to this dilemma, racial progress in America depends crucially on the alignment of “white” and “black” interests. Whenever there is an issue in which blacks have a stake, blacks can expect their interests to be advanced if and only if there is something to be gained for whites. Moreover, this will always be the case because America is built on white supremacy.
In a 1980 Comment, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” Professor Bell wrote:
Translated from judicial activity in racial cases both before and after Brown, this principle of “interest convergence” provides: The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites. However, 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.
It was not the first time Bell put forth the thesis of interest convergence as a necessary and sufficient condition for black advancement (though it may be argued that Bell is saying that interest convergence is only a necessary condition, it is my interpretation that interest convergence is also taken to be sufficient). In a 1976 paper for the Notre Dame Law Review entitled “Racial Remediation: An Historical Perspective on Current Conditions,” Bell argued that “even a rather cursory look at American legal history suggests that in the past, the most significant political advances for blacks resulted from policies which were intended and had the effect of serving the interests and convenience of whites rather than remedying racial injustices against blacks.”
For example, Bell contends that, in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, the abolition of slavery in the northern states of America was motivated primarily by “the economic advantages emancipation promised white businessmen who could not efficiently use slaves, and laborers who did not wish to compete with slaves for jobs.” Abolition also reduced the risk of slave revolts and minimized a potential influx of black people into northern states. On the latter point, “[t]he exclusion of emancipated blacks from the political process in all the Northern states and their consignment to menial jobs and an inferior social status reflect the distinction most whites drew between abolition of slavery and acceptance of the former slaves.” It was economic and social interest, not the immorality of slavery, that primarily drove abolitionism in northern states.
Bell also observes that, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s “primary objective was to save the Union.” Bell correctly points out that Lincoln wrote to newspaper magnate Horace Greeley that preserving the Union was his utmost priority and “he would end slavery, see it maintained, or end part and keep part” if any of those options facilitated efforts to win the war and preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation reflected this assessment by “cover[ing] only those areas still under the control of the Confederacy.” Interestingly, Bell observes that the proclamation “caused bitter anti-Negro riots in the North, and led to serious political reverses for Lincoln and the Republicans.” Lincoln apparently persisted with the proclamation despite white resistance. Bell, however, reminds us that the proclamation helped gain support from European nations and “opened the way for the Union Army to enlist nearly 200,000 black soldiers.”
Already we can begin to see how the fatalistic cynicism of interest convergence theory replaces multidimensionality with a simplified mono-causality. Even as he acknowledges Lincoln’s moral convictions about the evil of slavery, Bell lends undue credence to a view that Lincoln was more inclined to accommodate the political interests of whites than to go full force against the immorality of slavery. As President of the United States, Lincoln was constitutionally obligated to prioritize preservation of the Union. A puritanical and uncompromising focus on the eradication of slavery at all costs would have undermined this constitutional prerogative. In so doing, it also would have destroyed hopes of emancipation by allowing dissolution of a Union within which the conditions of emancipation could be pursued in an orderly and effective manner.
Yet another example of interest convergence involves civil rights legislation enacted during post-Civil War Reconstruction. Bell acknowledges that “[h]istorians have cited humanitarian concerns, political realities and a desire to punish the South as factors explaining the enactment of the civil rights amendments,” but he keeps his monocausal lens squarely on Dr. Mary Frances Berry’s suggestion “that necessity and self-interest in utilizing large numbers of black troops during the conflict largely determined the measures toward securing emancipation and granting citizenship and suffrage during the postwar years.”
In other words, it was all about white self-interest yet again. It did not, however, seem to work. Despite the claim that the thirteenth amendment was passed in large part as a result of the Republican “desire to maintain Republican party control in the Southern states and in Congress,” the amendment became obsolete within a decade, especially as it became odiously apparent that “Southern planters could achieve the same benefits with less burden through the sharecropping system and simple violence.” Professor Bell does not consider the possibility that President Lincoln, a tremendously effective political leader and operative as well as a superb political strategist, could have followed through on his moral convictions about slavery had he not been assassinated.
Even so, Bell acknowledges that “a century after the events, historians have not fully sorted out the multiple motivations for the civil rights activities during the Reconstruction Era.” It would seem presumptuous, then, “to attempt almost contemporaneous conclusions about the Brown years.” Nevertheless, Bell presumes to believe that his thesis of interest convergence applies to school desegregation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Bell mentions that the Brown decision can be attributed to factors such as black northern migration, the efforts of civil rights attorneys, the lessons of Nazi Germany, attentiveness to the concerns of black servicemen from World War II, and “a humane as well as politically aware Supreme Court.” But for Bell, the Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education to overturn “separate but equal” would not have been possible had not “the Brown decision also strengthened America’s position during the cold war.”
The promotion of democracy and capitalism over statist communism was “aided greatly by the abandonment of apartheid policies at home,” and these “foreign policy advantages” found their way into the federal government’s amicus curiae briefs. Although the “Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown did not acknowledge its impact on either foreign relations or domestic politics,” Bell is keen to emphasize that the “news media of the day did not miss the implications.” Nothing can divert Bell from the profound cynicism of interest convergence theory.
Indeed, the promise of desegregation was apparently sufficient to ward off international condemnation of racial injustice in the United States. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled “that the entitlement of blacks to desegregated public schooling need not be immediately granted, but might be delayed until administrative problems were solved.” Meanwhile, “while civil rights groups and some federal courts continue well-intended efforts to effectuate the Brown decision, there is little evidence that black children are educationally advantaged in desegregated schools, and growing concern that ‘white flight’ will resegregate many systems in the next few years.”
In sum, the nation “acknowledged and enjoined” racial injustice when it was “[s]purred by the need to confront a political or economic danger to the nation as a whole…but necessary remedies [were] not implemented once the economic or political irritant is removed.” He then runs through additional examples of backtracking, such as ineffective jury reform, gerrymandering, and Supreme Court decisions that drew “subtle distinctions in wealth and race” that retarded progress “in cases involving welfare, public housing, and educational finance even though the injustices sought to be remedied in each instance fall heavily on blacks and other nonwhites.”
Moreover, “[p]rocedural barriers now frustrate litigation designed to open up the suburbs to low-income housing.” Redistricting maintained white majority rule in increasingly black urban areas of Richmond, Virginia which “could now be justified on nondiscriminatory grounds.” Criminal conspiracy cases were brought against civil rights leaders and their organizations engaging in “direct action campaigns for better jobs through peaceful picketing and boycotts.” Although “[g]ains continue[d] to be made in the fight against employment discrimination…long-term progress was jeopardized seriously by the Supreme Court’s refusal to recognize the serious dimensions of the conflict between the interests of black and white union members.”
The upshot, then, is that “while legal rights have strategic and tactical usefulness, black people cannot afford the luxury of viewing rights as more than they are.” As Bell explains, “[t]he major liberating events in black history have, in fact, been motivated less by black suffering than by the pragmatic advantage they offered white society.” Moreover, “[v]iewed in retrospect, landmark civil rights precedents often result in far more benefit to the society as a whole than they bring to blacks.” The resolution of conflicts between whites and blacks in American history have come as the result of “compromises that victimized blacks,” and “[t]o the extent that resolutions of differences occur between poor and wealthy whites, the poor whites often achieve a larger voice in the political process through specific laws and policies that reduce the status of blacks.”
Part 2: The Problems with Interest Convergence Theory
The most conspicuous aspect of interest convergence theory is its fatalistic cynicism. This cynicism is rooted in a narrow conception of “white” self-interest as singular and sinister despite whatever diversity of interests one might occasionally, or frequently, observe among white people in American society. The major ramification is that anti-black racism is a permanent feature of American society. In the context of race relations, Bell seemingly cannot conceive of a majoritarian ruling, opinion, or policy that is sustained by a commitment to the interests of black Americans without a recognizable tangible benefit uniformly enjoyed by white people.
This narrow conception of self-interest gives rise to a theory that effectively overlooks the diversity of interests within racial groups, ignores how much racial progress has been achieved, and denies agency to whites and blacks alike. The result is a profoundly pessimistic rendering of race relations in American society that sees racism as a permanent feature of American society. The theory is also conveniently framed as unfalsifiable and indefinitely extendible, purporting to explain “why certain limitations on the use of targeted killings have been put into place” in the case of targeted killings by drones and why former U.S. President Barack Obama was elected as someone who would ensure that society was safe for corporate capitalism.
The implication is not that interest-convergence theory should be entirely dismissed. Rather, it needs a critique that sheds light on its limitations in order to unshackle the analytical constraints it inevitably imposes on any robust attempt to understand how we can move forward on race relations. As Professor Justin Driver concludes in a 2011 paper in the Northwestern University Law Review, “[a]ppealing to interest-convergence sentiments is surely a valuable tool, but it should not be regarded as the only tool that is available. Because notions of interest can be so complex and varied, it seems misguided to appeal only to an extremely narrow conception of self-interest.”
Professor Driver’s paper “initiates a critical discussion of the interest-convergence thesis” and provides a comprehensive, fair-minded, and balanced critique of Professor Bell’s theory. As he notes, it is needed. After a brief summary of “the theory’s prominence within the legal academy and beyond” since its conception in the 1970s, Driver writes that “it is surprising that virtually no sustained scholarly attention has been dedicated to examining the interest-convergence thesis, the assumptions that undergird the thesis, and the consequences that flow from accepting the thesis.”
According to Driver, interest convergence theory’s “overly broad conceptualizations” about the meaning of “black interests” and “white interests” obscure “intensely contested disputes” about what these interests entail. Second, the theory “incorrectly suggests that the racial status of blacks and whites over the course of United States history is notable more for continuity than for change.” Third, the theory “accords insufficient agency to two groups of actors—black citizens and white judges—who have played, and continue to play, significant roles in shaping racial realities.” Finally, the theory “cannot be refuted⎯and, thus, cannot be examined for its validity⎯because it accommodates racially egalitarian judicial decisions either by contending that they are necessary concessions in order to maintain white racism or by ignoring them altogether.”
- Narrow Conception of Self-Interest
On the first point, it’s not obvious that all whites and all blacks agree as a group about what policies advance their respective interests. Ashley Jardina’s White Identity Politics and Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, though exploring how white interests operate socially and politically in today’s world, also provide extensive documentation of intra-white viewpoint diversity. Professor Driver additionally points out “serious disagreements about what precisely advances the interests of black citizens.”
For example, disagreements emerge about whether “meaningful racial integration” is “a realistic goal”, with Professor Bell expressing doubts about “the wisdom of a headlong pursuit of racial integration.” On criminal justice reform, “many commentators suggest that black interests would be served by abandoning the aggressive policing of black communities that has been partially responsible for a highly disproportionate number of black people being ensnared by the legal system.” Randall Kennedy “has argued, however, that such analyses elevate the interests of black criminals over the interests of black victims.”
Then there is the issue of “white interests.” It is not clear, for example, that middle- and upper-class whites share the same interests even if their interests diverge from the interests of poorer whites. Interests can vary even among whites classified within the upper crust of the income distribution.
- The Minimization of Racial Progress
One the second point, Driver explains that “[w]hile the goal of racial equality has certainly not yet been fully realized, the racial progress that has been made over the generations has dramatically elevated the racial status of blacks.” Indeed, Driver correctly and poignantly observes the incontrovertible reality that “the racial existence of blacks in modern America would be unrecognizable, and perhaps even unfathomable, to their enslaved forefathers.” To contend, as Bell does, “that the existence of blacks today can be analogized to people who were literally (not metaphorically) denied their freedom or to people who had their liberty thoroughly circumscribed by Jim Crow minimizes the suffering of individuals who endured the yoke of unrelenting racial oppression.”
Consider, for example, that “[i]n Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court made the then unremarkable point that a black man ‘is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.’” As Driver notes matter-of-factly, “[n]ot only would such arguments no longer appear in the U.S. Reports but they would no longer be uttered in polite company.” In sum, one can concede that “[c]onditions are far from perfect on America’s racial front,” but [a]cknowledging racism’s continued effects does not mean…it is impossible to acknowledge simultaneously that the racial progress blacks have achieved since World War II has been anything less than profound.”
- The Denial of Agency
Interest convergence theory, Driver continues, “accords an almost complete absence of agency to two groups of actors who exercise a great deal of control regarding the advancement of black interests: the black citizenry and the white judiciary.” But stripping blacks of their agency implicitly encourages “black citizens to await the magical moment when their interests converge with the white majority…sharply discount[ing] the capacity of black people to participate in their own uplift.”
Similarly, “by reducing white judges to mere functionaries who do the bidding of the white establishment,” Bell’s theory “simultaneously diminishes the culpability of white judges who exercise their authority to maintain the existing racial hierarchy and denies the credit owed to white members of the judiciary who challenge that hierarchy.” As a result, Bell’s theory “risks reducing black people to the role of bystanders to the events of American history, individuals who occasionally get swept up in the current of world affairs but have a negligible role in shaping those affairs.” The theory “does not wholly remove all traces of black agency,” but “the amount of influence accorded black people over their own fates is a decidedly marginal phenomenon.” The Civil Rights Movement, and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., indicate otherwise.
The denial of agency not only discourages further agency. It also shortchanges the contributions of both blacks and whites to racial progress. For example, if “a black person should achieve distinction in the professional world, interest convergence suggests that the white establishment permitted that black person’s achievement as a small concession necessary to advance white interests and maintain racial order.” As a result, the theory’s “minimization of black agency also may have the regrettable effect of undermining the achievement of individual blacks.”
The same goes for whites. This unfortunate consequence especially applies to white judges. “The denial of agency,” writes Driver, “to one particular group of white citizens⎯white judges⎯merits scrutiny here in light of their perceived centrality to implementing the interest-convergence thesis.” On the one hand, “[t]his minimization at once denies culpability to members of the judiciary who have ratified racism through their decisions and denies credit to members of the judiciary who have rejected racism.” On the other hand, “[i]n the middle third of the twentieth century, an all-white Supreme Court issued a number of decisions that confronted the racist treatment of blacks in a variety of contexts, including the electoral, residential, and, yes, the educational.”
What we are left with is a “conspiratorial outlook” that casts Supreme Court Justices who “resemble less a collection of individuals with varying ideological commitments than an undifferentiated mass composed of diabolical seers who are dedicated to prolonging black subordination by protecting white interests.” But failing to recognize the successes of court judges in the march of racial progress “is unwise because judges will be unlikely to issue progressive decisions on race⎯or other legal areas involving inequality⎯if they believe that their decisions will ultimately be understood as only protecting the prevailing order. The interest-convergence theory’s minimization of agency thus provides a myopic view of judicial behavior in all its moral dimensions.”
- The Interest Convergence Theory Is Unfalsifiable
Professor Driver begins his paper by recounting the landmark Grutter vs. Bollinger case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using race as a factor in university admissions does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The case gave a boost to activists who had long advocated for affirmative action as a means of advancing the interests of black Americans. Professor Bell, however, was not so sanguine. One clue as to why, Driver writes, can be detected in a statement by one-time NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, who not only “viewed Grutter as an affirmation of the organization’s efforts to achieve black advancement,” but also expressed particular admiration for Grutter’s conception of affirmative action not as a policy that benefits primarily blacks but instead as a policy that benefits all of American society—including the armed services and the business communities.”
Among other criticisms, “legal scholars on the left also criticized Grutter for precisely the feature that Professor Greenberg lauded: its justification of affirmative action as a compelling government interest on the ground that such programs enhance leading American institutions rather than on the ground that such programs benefit racial minorities.” Professor Bell “viewed Grutter as a ‘definitive example’ of his ‘interest-convergence’ thesis,” which, as we have seen, claims that “blacks receive favorable judicial decisions to the extent that their interests coincide with the interests of whites.”
As with Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Court “was not motivated by a desire to redress black suffering under racial segregation,” but instead with improving the nation’s “image during the Cold War,” Bell “detected similar motivations animating the Court’s decision in Grutter.” Justice O’Connor only supported the Grutter decision when she “perceived in the Michigan Law School’s admissions program an affirmative action plan that minimizes the importance of race while offering maximum protection to whites and those aspects of society with which she identifies.”
In his own words, Professor Bell took “some measure of a prophet’s pride” for having long argued “that no matter how much harm blacks were suffering because of racial hostility and discrimination, we could not obtain meaningful relief until policymakers perceived that the relief blacks sought furthered interests or resolved issues of more primary concern.” Brown vs. Board of Education “did not immediately lead to desegregated schools in much of the country.” Similarly, Driver writes, Bell “predicted that Grutter would prove to be a fleeting victory for racial minorities.”
In short, Driver concludes, the pessimistic reaction of Bell and other critics “was a vivid illustration” of the irrefutability of interest-convergence theory. “Instead of calling out ‘heads, I win; tails, you lose’,” Driver explains, “the interest-convergence thesis simply substitutes ‘heads, white people win; tails, black people lose’.” Its framing makes interest convergence theory unfalsifiable. “Like many self-styled prophets,” Driver points out, “Professor Bell can tout his foresight not least because he espouses a view of the world that is fundamentally incapable of being falsified by subsequent events.” Indeed, “[a]ll judicial decisions involving race can, if subjected to sufficiently intense scrutiny, be understood to affirm the existence of the interest-convergence theory at work.” The theory’s irrefutability, Driver continues, “is intensified by Professor Bell’s tendency to minimize and ignore data points that appear to refute or even complicate the thesis.”
This irrefutability feeds the fatalism that “explains why some cases that might initially be viewed as racial advances reveal themselves to be, upon closer inspection, merely legitimations of the prevailing racial hierarchy.” In other words, “[i]f legal rules expose the underpinnings of racism in an excessively blatant manner, the interest-convergence theory provides that the judiciary may grant some relief to black people because doing so serves larger white societal interests: namely, an interest in the appearance of meritocracy and an interest in the social stability necessary to avoid racial unrest.”
These “ostensible victories” are what Bell calls “contradiction closing cases”. That is, they ostensibly close the gap between the nation’s ideals and the realization of its ideals, but crucially, in the words of Bell, only as a “shield against excesses in the exercise of white power,” while “bring[ing] no real change in the status of blacks.” These cases merely “provide blacks and liberals with the sense that the system is not so bad after all.” In the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, Bell argues: “You would never know it from the opposition and determined resistance of so many whites…but the Brown decision was actually a good deal for white Americans.”
Why? Because “[t]he Brown decision’s rejection of the racial barriers imposed by segregation . . . reinforced the fiction that the path of progress was clear. Everyone could and should succeed through individual ability and effort.” As Driver notes, “Professor Bell now views Brown as a decision that advanced racism by appearing to reject racism.” Interest-convergence theory can have its cake and eat it too.
This persistent fatalism is not restricted to Professor Bell. As Driver notes, fellow CRT scholar and professor “Richard Delgado has further explained that contradiction-closing cases occur ‘when the gap between our ideals and a pervasively racist reality grows too large,” serving to “legitimate a generally indifferent legal system, permitting dominant society to believe that it is fair and just.”
Perhaps such fatalism is understandable, but it is no shield against the methodological problem of un-falsifiability. In the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, as Driver notes, “[t]hat a decision rejecting racial hierarchy in fact must be understood as reinforcing racial hierarchy lays bare the essential irrefutability of the interest-convergence thesis. Judicial decisions that seem to undermine the thesis are seamlessly transformed into confirmations of the thesis.” Have your cake and eat it too.
This fatalism is especially pernicious because it encourages resignation about the impossibility of overcoming racism. By “viewing judicial decisions as mere ‘correction[s] of racial outrages’,” the theory “denies the existence, and even the possibility, of obtaining genuine victories on the road to racial equality.” In fact, the notion that judicial decisions merely engage in the “correction of racial outrages”, Driver notes, “obscures racial progress, as one generation’s everyday slight is the next generation’s outrage.” The cynical view that judicial decisions only temporarily close the gap between ideals and the realization of ideals “dismisses judicial defeats on the racial front as expected outcomes and rejects victories for racial equality as necessary concessions in order to maintain the racial status quo. According to this mindset, then, the judicial system sometimes seems incapable of issuing a decision that merits praise for advancing black interests.”
Finally, Driver notes, since the “interest-convergence thesis is predicated on racial stasis and the Court’s impervious approach to black interests,” it prevents Bell from adequately “grappling with” racially egalitarian decisions issued by the courts. “[I]f these cases do in fact cut against the interest-convergence theory,” Driver maintains, “Professor Bell should acknowledge that point frankly.” To ignore or minimize “the significance of seemingly important doctrinal shifts regarding race enhances the concern that the interest-convergence theory is less than fully committed to a candid assessment of developments in the legal world.” The point, of course, is not to disregard the interest convergence thesis altogether, but to recognize its limitations, allow for a more optimistic view of race relations, and encourage court decisions that advance black interests.
One major takeaway from interest convergence theory is that whites not only value their own interests over the interests of blacks, but they have little regard for the value of blacks overall. As Bell states in Racial Remediation, although “most whites view the racial plight of blacks as an injustice that should be corrected,” whites also rank “the elimination of racism…[as] only a step or two higher than the campaign to end the senseless slaughter of the oceans’ great whales.” If so, white Americans cannot be expected to offer up much in the way of sacrifice on behalf of racial justice.
This, Bell believes, is because America is, at heart, a racist country: “America is not simply a country consisting of white majority; it is a white country which means that flourishing black institutions of any kind are unnatural, suspect and not to be encouraged.” Any black individual who succeeds does so only at the expense of reinforcing the racial hierarchy: “This is not to say that blacks as individuals cannot achieve and prosper in this country, and receive general acclaim for those achievements. Successful blacks serve white interests by providing the rationalizing link between the nation’s espousal of racial equality and its practice of racial dominance.”
Interest convergence theory feeds a conspiratorial mindset summed up by Professor Driver: “The inability to refute the suggestion that the interest-convergence theory is at work results in the reinforcement of racially conspiratorial thought, a mindset that is disturbingly prominent within the black community.” Driver cites studies showing that 60.2 percent of black college students “thought that it was definitely true or possibly true that the AIDS virus was intentionally designed in a laboratory to infect blacks,” and that “84.1% of the black college students deemed it definitely true or possibly true that the United States government intentionally ensures that illicit drugs are available in impoverished black communities.” The historical oppression of black Americans “is, of course, far from a figment of the black imagination,” but Driver adds, “in the modern era, no evidence confirms that large-scale racial conspiracies exist within the United States.”
This paranoia comes at a cost. Professor invokes the words of Professor Edward Banfield: “It is bad enough to suffer real prejudice . . . without having to suffer imaginary prejudice as well.” Moreover, Driver notes, “[t]he relentless search to identify widespread racial conspiracies…prevents at least some black people from seeking interracial understanding and relationships, as white people are warily viewed as potential conspirators in racial oppression.” Finally, it gives rise to a paranoid mindset that prevents “advocates for racial equality from gaining sorely needed attention to address policies and laws that have a disproportionately negative impact on black lives.”
This, Driver concludes, is ironic considering that Bell traditionally has argued that it is whites who are paranoid for opposing racial reforms such as affirmative action that supposedly end up benefitting themselves. Only paranoia, Bell claims, can explain such opposition. Apparently, however, paranoia cannot explain the underlying fatalism that permeates interest convergence theory.
The conspiracy-mongering makes sense, however, when we consider the epigraph in Bell’s book Silent Covenants, which, according to Driver, argues:
The world is moved by diverse powers and pressures creating cross currents that unpredictably, yet with eerie precision, determine the outcome of events. Often invisible in their influence, these forces shape our destinies, furthering or frustrating our ambitions and goals. The perfection for which we strive is elusive precisely because we are caught up in the myriad of manifestations of perfection itself.
Professor Bell is not alone. The notion of racial subordination as operating at the subliminal level of “false consciousness” in American society is at the heart of both CRT and critical whiteness studies. Richard Delgado, for example, has said that “American society oppresses and subordinates minorities of color at every turn, subscribing to a nearly invisible ideology that finds [racial] oppression tolerable, natural, and inevitable.” Naturally, this framing of racism becomes irrefutable in practice.
As Driver notes, “Professor Bell has written that the outlook ‘is simply a hard-eyed view of racism as it is and [blacks’] subordinate role in [society]’.” Moreover, “[i]ndividuals who disagree with the interest-convergence theory’s conclusions are dismissed as being uninformed and naïve,” with Professor Bell saying that people who view Brown as a valuable precedent are akin to “those who hold that the earth is, after all, flat.” As proclaimed by a fictional character created by Richard Delgado: “interest-convergence explains resistance to the very idea of interest-convergence.” This is not a mindset, Driver concludes, that lends “itself to probing scholarly exchange.”
Jonathan Church is an economist and writer who has been published in Areo, Quillette, Merion West, Culturico, Washington Examiner, and other venues. His book Reinventing Racism: Why ‘White Fragility’ Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality was published in December 2020 by Rowman & Littlefield. His next book, Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in May 2022.