By James W. Breedlove
Derrick Albert Bell, Jr., a native of Pittsburgh, PA, was the first tenured African-American Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was a Visiting Professor at New York University School of Law from 1991 until his death on Oct. 5, 2011. He is considered one of the most influential and controversial constitutional scholars of the twentieth century having helped create the critical race theory of legal scholarship.
Bell further distinguished himself when in 1980 he advanced “interest convergence” in the illuminating and elegantly intuitive document Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma, 93 HARV. L. REV. 518, 523 (1980). He argued that measures intended to advance racial equality only occur when such measures converge with the interests of the dominant majority.
He stated, “Throughout the history of civil rights policies, even the most serious injustices suffered by blacks, including slavery, segregation, and patterns of murderous violence, have been insufficient, standing alone, to gain real relief from any branch of government. Rather, relief from racial discrimination has come only when policymakers recognize that such relief will provide a clear benefit for the nation or portions of the populace.”
While the controversy over Bell’s critical race theory and interest convergence still rages the concerns that Bell addressed were not new. Bell’s ideas are closely related to those of another great political theorist, James Madison. One of Madison’s great concerns was the influence of “factions” which he addressed in “Federalist Papers 10.” He asserted the problems when factions have a majority are that the majority will allow its interests to dominate the public good. Both Bell and Madison emphasize the role of self-interest (or group interest) in politics.
In “Do the Right Thing: Understanding the Interest-Convergence Thesis” Stephen M. Feldman describes how Bell used the Brown v. Board of Education case to illustrate his theory. Bell emphasized that blacks had long been attacking the “separate but equal” doctrine, arguing that it was unconstitutional and immoral.
Why, then, did the Brown Court suddenly decide to listen to these complaints? Bell answered: in 1954, the Court’s decision holding that racially segregated public schools violated equal protection corresponded with widespread white interests. Most importantly, the United States was locked in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, and Jim Crow undermined the nation’s appeals for the allegiance of emerging Third World countries (often inhabited by people of color). Brown, in other words, lent credibility to the nation’s claim that democracy was superior to Communism. Moreover, the Court’s invalidation of Jim Crow appeared likely to spur economic development in the South and diffuse festering black frustration.
Bell further explained, “We live in a society in which racism has been internalized and institutionalized to the point of being an essential and inherently functioning component of that society.” He elaborates in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress’, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. Racism is a permanent part of the American landscape.”
Even today, 60 years after the Brown decision many black children attend public schools that are both racially isolated and inferior unable to experience Brown’s promise of equal educational opportunity. Also, witness the overt majority actions in the 70’s and 80’s to take back the civil rights gains of the 60’s.
However, racial realism presents a multifaceted strategy for dealing with a society that is infected with institutionalized racism. Bell insisted that realism is not a prescription for [black] paralysis; that is waiting for interest convergence to occur. Instead, realism can free African Americans from complacency and hope based thinking; freeing them to plan and act unfettered by false future promises of full racial equality and justice.
Bell thus encouraged blacks to continue the fight against racism. Instead of simply resorting to traditional, integration-oriented remedies, blacks should realistically reevaluate prior methods; develop new tactics, actions, and even attitudes that challenge the continuing assumptions of white dominance. Ultimately, Bell maintained that blacks could achieve success by continuing to fight aggressively for their freedom and justice.
Frederick Douglass in an 1857 speech stated, “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle there is no progress. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or with both. . . . Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.
In spite of the controversy, Bell consistently maintained that African Americans would have to make strategic use of his interest-convergence model in a self-sufficient but mutually beneficial way. Perhaps it is time to focus on reality and not ideology. Reality dictates that the interests of poor and working class whites are more aligned with poor and working class minorities. Ideology mandates that poor and working class whites align themselves with other whites to maintain their racial superiority. Recent political events have shown the weakness of maintaining that philosophy.
Bell’s final admonition was a challenge borrowed from many great thinkers over the ages: “nobody can free us but ourselves.”
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