Interest Convergence

Interest Convergence

Image via Vecteezy

Interests have momentarily converged – white people, you must watch for the status quo spring back.

Interest Convergence is a concept for white allies to be mindful of at the moment. It was coined by the legal scholar and Critical Race Theorist, Professor Derrick Bell (1980) published in The Harvard Law Review. Bell noticed an interest convergence dilemma: societal change supposedly to make society more equitable for black and brown people frequently makes situations worse and further oppresses the very groups they seek to liberate.

Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell (C) walking w. a group of law students on campus after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the law school's practice of not granting tenure to minority women professors. (Photo by Steve Liss//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Bell’s seminal essay in 1980 was an analysis of Brown versus the Board of Education from 1954 – an important Supreme Court case that led to end of state-mandated racial segregation in American state schools. Bell speculates about, why then? Why in 1954? Campaigners had been trying for years to change this legislation and suddenly it was changed.

Bell suggests that, at that time, elite white interest and the interests of Black Americans had for a time had ‘converged.’ Conflicts of interest for the establishment had, momentarily, been removed. It was revealed later through the release of government papers (Delgado, 2012), the American government had been afraid that post -war in Korea with African American soldiers fighting in uniform to uphold national values and after selling the American brand of ‘equality’ throughout the world, America couldn’t be seen to have domestic unrest and resistance should the government seek to continue to enforce segregation. The conflict of interest was removed and suddenly schools were, after decades of struggle, desegregated.

Bell notes it was not through human decency, a sense that we must have equity and a need to ensure people have their human rights that led to the change but rather a least-worse option that forced the establishment’s hand. Bell was criticised for being cynical at the time and understating what these legislative changes led to and how they benefitted the civil rights movement. But here we are again, with white police officers feeling both able to both murder a black man on the street and feeling able to watch their colleague kill another human being and standby. These men were at the time working for one of the biggest national institutions in America.

Of course, on the surface, things arguably did get better post desegregation of schools, for a time. However, long term, there are still segregated schools in America, only now not by legislation but by geographical area, economic and class divides. The economic lever of white flight (listen to Michelle Obama describe this in her book ‘Belonging’) has meant that there are still schools that children can’t attend. It is just not legislated. Rather some white people flee mixed schools because of perceptions of cultural capital, whose cultural capital has more currency and many white people have considerable economic privilege which enables land ownership (move houses to get into a ‘good’ school) and ‘choice’ in a neo-liberal competitive education market.

Khalwant Bhopal (2019) applies this concept of interest convergence when researching leadership training for protected characteristic groups aimed at increasing diversity in leadership in the UK. She notices that deficit model ‘training’ courses often result in increasing numbers of white people from other protected groups in leadership. The other protected groups, she notes, are now able to access jobs in senior teams in Higher Education, such as, white women. Despite claims to increase progression, these deficit model leadership courses mean the situation actually worsens for black and brown people and there are simply even more white people in leadership.

Why can’t we ever seem to convert protest into action where race is the issue?

This is what white allies in the Black Lives Matter movement must be vigilant about right now. #BLM is not a new campaign. People have been campaigning for centuries to change this situation so why then does racism seem to spring back in?

David Gillborn sums this up really well when he talks about the Monsterisation of Race Equality (2015) and argues that inventing scientific categories of ethnicity data has led to and enabled public and media manipulations of comparisons. The term ‘working class’ is a really great example of his. He talks about this here…

To sum up, over two thirds of Britain consider themselves to be working class, an amorphous term that doesn’t really quantify people or groups. The term ‘working class’ is interchangeable in government, you’ll notice, and is often used as a substitute for children who are entitled to Pupil Premium funding (14%). This shorthand term for ‘the white poor’ is regularly shared and reinforced between the establishment and the media.

Professor Stuart Hall published on this area years ago when he analysed the invention by government and the media the associations between blackness with the term ‘mugger.’ These sound bites and loose terms serve to influence public perception and stir up English conceptual cultural ideals of fairness, fair-play and level playing fields and apply it to race. Striving to be some notion of ‘equal’ or to have ‘equality’. What this really peddles is the idea that white people need to have equality first, before anyone else does.

Gillborn helps us understand that associating whiteness, working class and under-attainment is a really clever way of inferring an attack on whiteness and the poor. This is a really powerful mechanism the government uses to roll back any progress that focuses on making institutions more equitable specifically for black lives.

You will notice that the new Race Equality Commission has already stated that it will have a focus on white ‘working class’ boys. Even in the current context. Had they said ‘Pupil Premium’ white boys, many teachers would know just how poor you have to be in 21st century England to access Pupil Premium and how few white children this actually is. If the government is so focused on ‘working class boys’ (and define what they mean by it) they ought to be funding many more boys to make more progress.

As it is, I see the dropping in of this term, especially at this time, is a seed – watch this space for how the establishment will use this commission to promote and revive the image of the ‘poor white working class’ and promote colour-blindness to quash, divide and rule and re-centre any perceptions about inequity.

One has to ask, when people have been campaigning for decades about inequity, why has not much changed?

As a coach, I often think about people’s behaviours in a micro way and what macro behaviours and contexts are holding them in position. Very often behavioural change is so challenging for us because our behaviours are interdependent on places and routines, others’ behaviours and old loyalties. Ever tried to change a behaviour in a family structure? It is so hard because families have often grown around each -others’ behaviours. They are often legacy, unspoken structures, just how things are, how they always have been.

There is much resonance between the concept of families and institutions, especially in schools. For example, one of my schools had ‘learning families’, a sense of ‘belonging’, we are the ‘loco-parentis.’ As a coach, I use transactional theory to support leaders to be conscious of these silent structures in schools about how we communicate as the parent – the adult – the child as leaders.

Having coached in schools and senior teams for many years, I have found many paternal and patriarchal legacy patterns that enable the charismatic male leader to be in charge of the ‘vision’ and many, many women Assistant Head Teachers who ‘create’ his vision and by that I mean doing all of the action and translating the vision into operational reality. People generally feel too afraid to challenge or too scared to tell him that they would like to enact it differently, that they see the vision differently. Fixed institutional cultures makes it hard to challenge such ideas.

The macro culture of our institutions unconsciously influences how we all behave. Their policies, their awareness, the duty of care for leadership culture has to come from the institution. Institutions are the ‘future planners’ and they have a calendar, a written one and an unwritten one. It is great to feel that we all have agency, but actually in terms of long term change, we need our institutions to step forward and enable antiracist change. Talking about race in schools has to be enabled because so many national cultural legacies silence ideas about how race is affecting our everyday work. Yet we all feel it. We all notice it.

At a recent DiverseEd event, Alison Kriel, a national leader in how to create antiracist schools, distinguished between ‘doing’ antiracist work and defined antiracism as a state of being. It is not about having an antiracist week or month, she says. This idea that there is an antiracist week happens in schools because it is structurally so much easier just to do a month or a module of black history than to enable conversations about race and not have a solution to centuries of racism in our structures. Leaders like to have a solution.

To me being an antiracist school is like being a safeguarded school. There is no one answer to safeguarding. There are lots. You don’t sign off safeguarding at the start of the year, it is a way of thinking about protecting children and managing the risk to children in every situation they are in. The risks are situated – they come up every hour, every day.

The last ten years has seen a landslide, root-and-branch change in the way children are safeguarded in schools, through FGM, protecting data, Mental Health awareness, period poverty, online grooming, e-safety. It has meant that everyone has to talk about safeguarding, a lot. People in schools have learned to talk about grooming and period poverty, LGBT awareness, about Female Genital Mutilation, suicide, self-harm and mental health. We are learning to trust our instincts – to let ourselves be unsure, not know (yet) and be uncertain but pass it on to the safeguarding lead anyway, to raise a concern and have it heard even if it is hard to say, be as strong as the next link in the chain. All of this happens now because it protects us and helps shape a safe culture where we are on the look out. Information is passed on, documented, people are trained in what to look for in recruitment and research about best practice is shared. It is an annual requirement. It keeps us all safer. Our practice builds and we are getting much better at it.

If we all know that racism is in our schools and has been for years, it begs the question: What are we waiting for? What if protecting all of our children from racism needs a similar root and branch change? What has been distracting us from this fundamental work?

Silence about race

One reason might be that there is currently no structural framework to talk about race in schools which is why antiracism often sits in behaviour policies and complaints procedures. It is management retrospectively. Post-trauma.

Some colleagues have been teaching and embedding antiracist work into their curricula for decades – a work-around. But when they leave, the professional learning leaves with them. At the moment, there is a strong current of curriculum change that provides rare opportunity for schools to be supported to make a sustained change at its root.

The Status Quo will try to spring back

There will be an attempt from the establishment to push back the progress that we have made through #BLM and make situations worsen for black and brown people. It will be up to white people in positions of power to challenge themselves and their own structures that they help to uphold that have silently held racism in place for centuries. It begins with noticing it.

Our interests have momentarily converged and whilst it has not led to legislative change, it has come from the grassroots and it can move into institutions. Interestingly, it was mostly white people who took down Colston’s statue. Let us not forget that the narrative would be playing very differently if it were black or brown people. 

This spring back has a chance of being quashed if the white people in this movement choose to firstly, notice how the establishment tries to enable structures to continue as they are. It will then be for white people to listen very carefully to the movement and use their own agency to act and use positions of power in institutions to set about changing the institution at its root.