Interest convergence is a concept developed by Derrick Bell that describes the idea that progress toward racial equality only occurs when the interests of dominant and subordinate groups converge.
In other words, positive change for marginalized communities only happens when it benefits those in power as well.
For instance, we can examine the emergence of affirmative action policies in universities and workplaces. Many universities started implementing affirmative action policies after pressure from student protests and civil rights organizations, or, when it becomes of marketing benefit to do so.
Employment-based affirmative actions are often introduced to increase workplace diversity but also to improve public relations for businesses seeking a positive reputation among an increasingly diverse social and consumer base.
Overall, interest convergence theory suggests that marginalized communities can’t rely solely on morality or appeals to justice for equal rights without convincing those with more power on how it benefits that dominant group directly.
Definition of Interest Convergence
“Interest convergence” is a term used primarily within critical race theory to describe how progress toward racial justice tends to occur only when it aligns with the interests of dominant groups.
Interest convergence is not a term commonly used in scientific research, but rather it is a sociological concept introduced by Derrick Bell and used extensively within cultural, critical and sociological theories.
He argues that interest convergence is a phenomenon where dominant groups tend to support initiatives that promote equality and justice only when it benefits their own self-interests, making their allyship a relatively selfish action (Shih, 2017).
Milner (2008) adds that:
“…interest convergence stresses that racial equality and equity for people of color will be pursued and advanced when they converge with the interests, needs, expectations, and ideologies of Whites” (p. 333).
Interest convergence is a concept based on social identity theory as well as critical race theory. If people strongly identify with a certain group, they tend to support policies and actions to benefit that group (Unbound & Driver, 2011).
It can be seen in everything from grassroots campaigns by workers’ unions fighting for better wages and benefits to efforts by LGBTQ+ advocates to secure equal rights under the law.
They are more likely to support societal goals and identity acceptance that bring personal benefits, such as higher wages for workers through affirmative actions based on employment, if these align with their group interests.
10 Examples of Interest Convergence
- Sponsoring a pride parade: A corporation sponsoring a pride parade to portray itself as an inclusive and diverse company while also targeting the LGBTQ+ market. By targeting this demographic and positioning itself as a supporter of diversity and inclusion, the corporation increases its likelihood of obtaining new business and generating revenue.
- Introducing diversity & inclusion programs: Employers introduce diversity and inclusion training in the workplace to improve morale and productivity while also preventing potential lawsuits related to discrimination. These initiatives benefit both employees, who are more likely to feel valued in a diverse workplace, and employers who minimize their risk of legal action from employees who feel discriminated against.
- Offering halal products: A grocery store is offering halal products to attract Muslim customers and increase profits. This practice benefits both the store (through increased profits) and Muslim customers (having greater availability of their dietary required products).
- Suggesting grants: Universities offer scholarships and grants for students from underrepresented communities to fulfill diversity quotas while improving their college rankings. This example demonstrates how universities utilize interest convergence by fulfilling their social responsibility toward promoting diversity while benefiting themselves through positive press coverage.
- Adopting eco-friendly practices: Businesses choose eco-friendly practices not only due to environmental concerns but because they attract customers who prioritize sustainability in their purchasing decisions. These active measures give value to the cause while evolving consumer tendencies towards consumption choices in market economies.
- Gaining political support: Political candidates adopt positions on social issues that align with popular opinion as a means of gaining support during elections. By adapting to popular social trends, politicians use interest convergence as a means of generating greater public appeal relative to one’s competitors.
- Producing content with non-white actors: A movie studio is producing content featuring predominantly non-white actors for greater representation while also catering to diverse global markets where this demographic is prominent. This example highlights how media corporations can utilize interest convergence by fulfilling societal sentiments and earning profit through cross-border movie sales.
- Investing in public transport: Cities are investing in public transportation not only for environmental reasons but also because it can spur economic growth by providing more efficient access for workers without cars and drive-creating more buyers for local businesses near stations. Here, cities actively promote public transport initiatives not only for urban development purposes and reducing traffic congestion but also to position themselves as eco-friendly whilst generating economic opportunities.
- Promoting health initiatives: Corporations promote health initiatives such as gym discounts and healthy food options (such as salads) for employees’ physical well-being because various studies have demonstrated that healthy employees are more productive. This example presents how healthy initiatives further contribute to employee retention and job satisfaction, thereby increasing corporate profits.
- Introducing flexible working hours: An organization introduces flexible work schedules not only to accommodate employees’ work-life balance but also because studies show that flexibility increases employee satisfaction. Happier staff members tend to stick around longer, reducing the organization’s need for expensive recruitment, hiring & training of new personnel.
Fact File: Derrick Bell’s Contribution
Derrick Bell (2004), a prominent legal scholar, and civil rights activist, developed the concept of interest convergence in the context of his work on critical race theory.
Bell (2004) was concerned with understanding how legal institutions perpetuate racial inequalities in society, and he saw interest convergence as a way to explain why some changes occur while others do not.
Bell (2004) argued that interest convergence emerged historically because dominant groups mainly sought self-interest when supporting policies that benefited marginalized communities.
He believed that white Americans often only supported policies to advance racial equality if they also promoted economic or other benefits for themselves (Bell, 2004).
Bell’s (2004) interest in convergence theory was influenced by his experiences working as an attorney for organizations trying to promote equal-opportunity legislation during the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1960s.
During this period, many white Americans opposed legislation like Affirmative Action without any tangible benefit to them.
This is why workplace diversity through affirmative action has been botched by employers running poorly performed diversity programs- rather than creating safe environments where employees can truly thrive.
From this, Bell (2004) understood that progress towards achieving social justice in America required a broader recognition by those with political power and economic resources.
Overall, Bell’s concept of interest convergence originated from observations of how dominant interests affect reform efforts while recognizing the importance of shared interests across different groups as an additional driving force toward social change.
3 Case Study Examples
1. Brown vs. Board of Education
Interest convergence played a significant role in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 that declared racial segregation unconstitutional (Bell, 2004).
While many civil rights activists pushed for desegregation because they believed it was inherently unjust, legal scholar Derrick Bell (2004) argued that progress towards desegregation would only occur when it aligned with the interests of white Americans.
White Americans were motivated to support integrated schools to win international approval and counter the propaganda efforts of nations advocating against racial discrimination.
Through this motivation, white Americans came to believe that a racially integrated society would be necessary to establish America’s global authority and reputation.
2. Voting Rights Act of 1965
Signed in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act prohibited states from imposing discriminatory voting laws or practices to prevent African Americans from exercising the electoral power they were legally entitled to (Ray, 2022).
The Voting Rights Act is a clear example of interest convergence in action.
Many progressive White Americans were concerned that the ongoing disenfranchisement of minority groups could potentially destabilize the political system in the United States.
Additionally, they recognized that granting voting rights to historically deprived communities, such as young people and Latinos who tend to vote for the Democratic party, could yield significant advantages (Ray, 2022).
As a result, these progressive Whites supported legislation to expand voting rights, even though it went beyond just addressing blatant discrimination.
3. Immigration Reform Act (IRCA) of 1986
The IRCA was signed by President Ronald Reagan because it provided advantages for various groups and addressed issues related to undocumented immigrants that were then being framed as directly damaging to US interests.
The Law granted amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants already residing in the US but also contained provisions establishing tighter controls on future immigration (Golash-Boza, 2015).
Politically groups with economically-similar interests (e.g., White farmers and immigrant farm workers) lobbied for support despite vehement disagreements.
It is argued that the IRCA represented a critical agreement between ethnic, racial, and class interests to ensure a working solution could benefit the individual and the larger society, thus illustrating interest convergence (Golash-Boza, 2015).
So, this law allowed different groups to put aside their differences, recognize common interests and unite for a greater cause.
Interest convergence is a concept introduced by legal scholar Derrick Bell that highlights the importance of shared interests and mutual benefits in promoting social justice.
Throughout history, we have seen how marginalized communities like African Americans and minorities have struggled to realize their goals without forming coalitions with individuals or groups in positions of privilege.
To achieve progress, it becomes essential for disadvantaged groups to showcase how their aims are aligned with the interests of influential people or organizations who tend only to act when it serves themselves.
Only then do they stand a chance at gaining much-needed help toward achieving equality and justice.
Understanding the principles of interest convergence helps us recognize opportunities for collaboration and coalition-building between different social groups to achieve progress toward equity and inclusion.
Bell, D. A. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Golash-Boza, T. M. (2015). Immigration nation. New York: Routledge.
Milner, H. R. (2008). Critical race theory and interest convergence as analytic tools in teacher education policies and practices. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(4), 332–346. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487108321884
Ray, V. (2022). On critical race theory: Why it matters & why you should care. New York: Random House.
Shih, D. (2017, April 19). A theory to better understand diversity, and who really benefits. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/523563345/a-theory-to-better-understand-diversity-and-who-really-benefits
Unbound, C., & Driver, J. (2011). Rethinking the interest-convergence thesis. Northwestern University Law Review, 105(1), 149–197. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6036&context=journal_articles&httpsredir=1&referer=