Monday, July 03, 2006

Explaining Interest-Convergence

In this post, I mentioned what's known as the "Interest-Convergence Theory" (pioneered by Derrick Bell) to explain why Brown v. Board of Education came out the way it did. In retrospect, not everyone knows about this hypothesis, so I thought I'd lay out the bare-bones of it.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had been courageously and tenaciously litigating school desegregation cases for many years, usually losing or, at best, winning narrow victories.

In 1954, however, the Supreme Court unexpectedly gave them everything they wanted. Why just then? ....

During that period...the United States was locked in the Cold War, a titantic struggle with the forces of international communism for the loyalties of the uncommitted Third World, much of which was black, brown, or Asian. It would ill serve the U.S. interest if the world press continued to carry stories of lynchings, racist sheriffs, or murders like that of Emmett Till. It was time for the United States to soften its stance toward domestic minorities. The interests of whites and blacks, for a brief moment, converged.

Bell's article was greeted with outrage and accusations of cynicism. Yet, ten years later, the legal historian Mary Dudziak carried out extensive archival research in the files of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Justice. She analyzed foreign press reports, as well as letters from U.S. ambassadors abroad, all showing that Bell's intuition was correct. When the Justice Department intervened on the side of the NAACP for the first time in a school desegregation case, it was responding to a flood of secret cables and memos outlining the United States' interest in improving its image in the eyes of the Third World. [Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: NYU Press, 2001): 18-20]

The original Bell article is Derrick A. Bell, Jr., Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma, 93 Harv. L. Rev. 518 (1980). The Dudziak article cited is Mary L. Dudziak, Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative, 41 Stan. L. Rev. 61 (1988).

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