Why Is It Different This Time? Parkland and the Theory of Interest Convergence

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In October 1978, Derrick Bell, Harvard Law professor and soon-to-be Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, gave a speech at the Harvard Law symposium to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education (1954).  In the talk, Bell argued the impetus for the court’s actions were not as honorable as some believed.

For generations, black leaders argued for repeal of “separate but equal” policies.  Why had the justices suddenly decided to acquiesce?  Rather than basing their decision on improving outcomes for black youth, Bell argued the court was actually acting in the interest of the white majority.  He explained:

I contend that the decision in Brown to break with the Court’s long-held position on        these issues cannot be understood without some consideration of the decision’s value to whites, not simply those concerned about the immorality of racial inequality, but also those whites in policymaking positions able to see the economic and political advances at home and abroad that would follow abandonment of segregation.

Bell laid out three main arguments to support his assessment.  1) The decision helped to create immediate credibility for America in the ideological fight against global communism; 2) The decision provided much needed reassurance to black WWII veterans that the ideals they fought for in Europe and the Pacific would be lived up to at home; 3) Many whites realized segregation hampered the economic growth of the southern states.  As such, ending the practice would allow the southern plantation economy to evolve into an industry based on military manufacturing and expand into the “sun belt” and California. [1]  With these assessments, Bell argued any “advances” made for black and brown citizens in the United States would have never become reality without whites believing the actions benefited them as well.  He labeled this theory “interest convergence.” In other words, minoritized groups (i.e., those who are labeled “a minority”) never decide their fate.  Rather, the majority decides what “benefits” might be extended to the minoritized.

In a great example of how interest convergence might play out, in the final chapter of his 1992 national best-seller, Face at the Bottom of the Well, Bell provided a fantastical story of a conservative black economics professor and “unofficial black cabinet member” called upon to advise the President of the United States after aliens invaded the country.  The aliens arrived with huge vessels filled to the brim with gold that could be used to bail out the nearly bankrupted government; special chemicals to clean the earth’s environment; and safe nuclear fuel.  The only thing these celestial beings asked for in return for these items was to take the entire population of African Americans back with them to their homeland.[2]

Although the economics professor had been a staunch supporter of the president and his policies to roll-back civil rights protections and labeled an Uncle Tom and race traitor, he now found himself in a precarious situation: advise the resettlement of all African Americans (including himself) to the alien homeland, or fight against the trade.  I won’t spoil the ending to the story—I highly recommend you read it, and the whole book—but a possible strategy he considered was to accept the alien’s offer in an effort to make the white majority believe it was a better option.  Based on the idea of interest convergence, whites would demand they as well be allowed to travel to the alien homeland, resulting in the saving of the African American population.

Although Bell’s theory of interest convergence was rightly based on racialization, it also provides an interesting lens to look through and understand possible outcomes from the deadly events that took place on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida.  At 2:30 in the afternoon that day, a 19-year-old walked into his former high school with a semi-automatic assault rifle and opened fire on his former peers.  As we all unfortunately know, this was not the first mass shooting in a school or other public area in the United States.  What seems to be different about this event, however, is that there is a growing uproar for gun-reform that by all accounts seems to be finding traction.  Since the shooting, sixteen major corporations have cut-ties with the NRA.  Why are these companies now taking notice?  What is different about this shooting when compared to the seemingly countless others that have taken place before?

The parents of the children massacred last week come from a very affluent area.  The sort of area where people believe “this kind of stuff can’t happen.”  Using Bell’s theory, a possible reason for the uproar being heard around the nation in terms of gun-control could be because the interests of some wealthy, majority white families, and that of all other not-so-affluent populations have converged.

The area where the shooting took place, Parkland, Florida, was described by members of the community as a place with “strong values” and very “tightknit.” A quick web search shows that the median household income of members of the Parkland community sits around $126,905, compared to $56,516 in the U.S. as a whole in 2015.  By population percentage, 23% of the Parkland community earns over $200K, compared to just 5% of the population within the larger United States.  In terms of race, 66.69% of the population in Parkland are white, compared with 19.29% hispanic, 6.48% black, 6.26% Asian, 0.12% Native American, and .26% other (within-group differences non-withstanding).[3] How might these demographics contribute to the way the community reacted to the murders, and the way other communities relate to their reaction?

On his popular HBO show, comedian John Oliver described the Parkland shooting as veering from the norm in terms of reaction.  He explained that in other shootings, we see a familiar response, but this time it felt different:

These events are now so familiar, we basically automatically know how each side will   play out: ‘thoughts and prayers,’ ‘fuck your thoughts and prayers,’ ‘it’s a mental health problem,’ ‘yeah, but it’s also a gun problem,’ and then someone says ‘now’s not the       time to talk about gun control,’ and then everybody moves on until it inevitably happens again… But this time felt slightly different because when the ‘now’s not the time’   argument came out, the kids from that school said, ‘You know what? Yes it fucking is.’

I believe Mr. Oliver is correct that this time is indeed different.  But, I push us to think why that is.

Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, there have been eleven mass-shootings in schools across the United States in which four or more individuals were fatally shot (not including the perpetrator).  There is a commonality between the areas in which these shootings have occurred: the majority were in places where the median income is well below the national average. The Red-Lake shootings occurred in a community where the median household income is $32,232.[4]  The West Nickle Mines shooting occurred in an Amish community located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Within the larger Lancaster area, the median household income is $33,772.[5] In Blacksburg, VA, 32.5% of the population earn below $15K/ year and the median household income is $29,271.[6] The shooting at Northern Illinois University took place in DeKalb, Illinois, where the median household income is $38,357.[7]  In 2012, the Oikos University Shooting took place in Oakland, California, where the median household income is $52,962.[8] The Umpqua Community College shooting took place in an area where the median household income is $39,081.[9] The median household income in the area surrounding the shooting at Rancho Tehman Reserve is $47,679.  Four of the eleven shootings occurred in somewhat affluence areas (Santa Monica, CA; Marysville, WA; Newtown, CT; and Parkland, FL).

By far, the two most affluent of these communities are Newtown and Parkland.  In Newtown, the median household income is slightly lower than that in Parkland at $108,667.  By population percentage, 17.7% of individuals in Newtown earn over $200K.[10] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the community we hear supporting Parkland students and parents in their push for gun-reform the most are from Newtown.  The people of Parkland, partnered with those in Newtown, could hold the social capital necessary to become the lightning rod needed to affect some sort of gun-reform.  Social capital can be understood as human networking, i.e., it’s not what you know, but who you know.  In these communities, the parents of the students might have powerful connections (or hold powerful positions themselves) to tap into and push for change.  These people believe that things can change because they might have no reason to believe they cannot.  In their lives, they may have been able to make the sort of connections necessary to make changes happen.  Impoverished communities of other school shootings, on the other hand, may have been faced with a far-less responsive reality to their personal needs.

For a parallel example, a similar argument using interest convergence might be made for the emphasis seen now with the epidemic of opioid addiction.  Black and brown communities have been ravaged by drug addiction for generations.  It was not until the affluent, mostly-white families began to be effected that the nation began to push the conversation toward reform.

But, the question I am left with after understanding the recent push toward gun-reform as an example of interest convergence is – so what?  Does it matter that the reason legislators and citizens of our nation might confront our love affair with military killing machines is because rich people now feel effected?  I turn to Derrick Bell for an answer.

Many people might have argued that it did not matter that black and brown people were given equal opportunity in schooling because white people also benefited.  The important thing was that school segregation was over.  The ends justified the means.  But, what does that justification mean for black and brown citizens’ agency? Should black and brown students not have been allowed to attend any school of their choosing merely because that was their wish, regardless of how that might affect white people?

Applying this justification to the shootings, what does it say that we in the nation now seem to be seriously considering gun reform when so many others perished before Parkland?  Does it matter that those voices seemingly went unheard?  Do the ends justify the means?  Could a partnership between students and adults from Parkland and Newtown be the winning combination to finally see some sort of change in our gun-laws?  Can these groups pressure politicians enough to stop kowtowing to their NRA overlords?  No one knows what the coming weeks/months will bring in terms of gun-reform.  If history teaches us anything, it’s that the outcome might not be as hopeful as the students and parents of Parkland and Newtown wish.

What is different is that these communities, working together, might hold the necessary combination of power and experience needed to effect change.  If such a change does occur, we should acknowledge the power dynamics at play.  We are perpetuating what has been the case in this country for generations – nothing changes until those who hold power feel change is in their own interest.  If we truly want to be a nation of freedom and equality for all, we need to become critical about the ways marginalized groups remain in the margins.  The reason why gun-reform may not have occurred after school shootings in 1999, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, and 2017 was that the majority of populations effected were not members of our national elite.  In 2018, however, our elite have become involved.

Jacob Bennett earned his PhD from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia with a specialization in Curriculum and Instruction.  His research deals with analyzing how racial ideologies of teachers influence their interactions with students.  In relation to teaching, he designs courses aimed at having preservice teachers become critically conscious of connections between racialized and systemic oppression in the United States before teaching in P-12 public schools.

References

[1] Bell Jr, Derrick A. “Brown v. Board of Education and the interest-convergence dilemma.” Harvard Law Review (1980): 518-533.

[2] Derrick, Bell. “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.” New York (1992).

[3] N.A. “Parkland, Florida.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. http://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/florida/parkland /florida/parkland (retrieved February 20, 2018).

[4] N.A. “Red Lake, Minnesota.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/minnesota/red_lake (retrieved February 25, 2018).

[5] N.A. “Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/pennsylvania/lancaster (retrieved February 25, 2018).

[6] N.A. “Blacksburg, Virginia.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/virginia/blacksburg (retrieved February 25, 2018).

[7] N.A. “DeKalb, Illinois.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/illinois/dekalb (retrieved February 25, 2018).

[8] N.A. “Oakland, California.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/california/oakland (retrieved February 25, 2018).

[9] N.A. “Roseburg, Oregon.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/oregon/roseburg (retrieved February 25, 2018).

[10] N.A. “Newtown, Connecticut.” Sperling’s Best Places, n.d., 2018. https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/connecticut/newtown (retrieved February 20, 2018).

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