© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Theory To Better Understand Diversity, And Who Really Benefits

UCLA students hold crosses, while taking part in a 2006 rally on campus to express their concerns about the lack of racial diversity in the student body.
Mel Melcon
LA Times via Getty Images
UCLA students hold crosses, while taking part in a 2006 rally on campus to express their concerns about the lack of racial diversity in the student body.

Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appointed Candice Jackson as the acting assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights. Jackson will oversee a staff of hundreds charged with responding to thousands of civil rights complaints every year, including some from students who feel discriminated against based on race, color, national origin, sex, ability, and age.

ProPublica reported that while an undergraduate at Stanford University, Jackson, a white woman, wrote an article for a student newspaper complaining about a section of a calculus course designed for "minority" students. The math class was an example of "racial discrimination" against white people, she wrote. In another op-ed for the paper, Jackson dismissed the needs of women "banding together by gender to fight for their rights." Might Jackson's words from twenty years ago fuel the idea that her office may not fully enforce Title VI and IX protections for people of color and white women? Do they signal that she may instruct her staff to elevate the complaints of white students or faculty who believe they are victims of racial discrimination?

A stronger line of inquiry begins with this question: what if these diversity policies actually improved the social position of white students and faculty?

As an Asian American professor who teaches about race, I regularly find myself at the center of campus diversity programs and initiatives. I work at a public Midwestern university where approximately 90 percent of students and faculty are white. Because this lack of racial diversity is so conspicuous, my institution has sought to advance and measure its progress to racial equity for many years. I've led several of these efforts, some more effective than others: antiracist professional development, resident assistant training, campus climate surveys, Equity Scorecard, general education reform, etc. Initiatives like these can begin to dismantle institutional racism, or they can further entrench it. In any similarly-minded effort, the key factor is something called "interest convergence."

Interest convergence is a theory coined by the late Derrick Bell, law professor and spiritual godfather to the field of study known as critical race theory. Interest convergence stipulates that black people achieve civil rights victories only when white and black interests converge. The signature example is Brown v. Board of Education, which happened because it advanced white interests too, Bell argued. Specifically, desegregation raised the nation's prestige in world politics during the Cold War. Eventually, when interests diverged, the enforcement of civil rights was curtailed: Brown was undercut by later cases that sanctioned segregation for decades. Bell pointed to later affirmative-action triumphs as examples of renewed interest convergence.

Schools and universities are natural sites to observe interest convergence because inequitable access to quality education ensures white social advantage. However, recent dispatches from around the country might lead some to believe that black interests are not only ascendant on college campuses but are absolutely oppressive.

In March, Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, burst onto the national scene with its protest against a lecture by Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. A Middlebury professor was assaulted during the protest and later hospitalized for her injury. Earlier this month, students at Claremont McKenna College blocked the entrance to a room where conservative thinker Heather Mac Donald was planning to speak. Her book The War on Cops criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement and pushes the discredited theory of the "Ferguson Effect." Every week seems to bring a similar story of speeches interrupted or canceled on college campuses.

But speakers come and go, and it would be difficult to claim that a single protest is a systemic effort to discriminate against white people. However, campus diversity policies are sometimes misinterpreted as doing just that. Responding to a wave of antiracist student protests over the past two years, most memorably at the University of Missouri and Yale University, colleges and universities have begun to refashion their identities to make room for the secular trinity of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Some of these are indeed systemic efforts — rewriting curriculum, updating tenure and promotion policies, hiring Chief Diversity Officers — meant to change how institutions evaluate themselves, students, and faculty.

Interest convergence helps to explain diversity policies once we understand that institutions will lose more than prestige if they are perceived as unwelcoming or even hostile to students of color. Any college president can attest to how crucial the tuition of international students is to their institution's bottom line. A recent survey indicated that almost 40 percent of US colleges report declines in applications from international students, chiefly those from Middle Eastern nations, China, and India. Many students submitted applications before recent spikes in hate crimes and hate-group activity and before the current administration's efforts to make good on its promise to ban travel from six Muslim nations. Thus, the drop in yield of international students actually enrolling may be steeper than that of applications. Quite simply, it is in an institution's financial interest not to be seen as racist.

Institutions like the University of Oklahoma are hoping that changes they have already put into place will improve campus climate. In response to a 2015 viral video of fraternity members singing a racist song, OU implemented mandatory "diversity experience trainings" for its first-year students the following year. This initiative has not been well-received by all. Complaints arrived from members of OU's College Republicans, who charged that the trainings made them feel "uncomfortable" and forced "them to be 'politically correct.'" These comments might resemble the kinds of complaints that Candice Jackson's office will need to make sense of.

However, when the "OU Freshmen Diversity Experience" touts its professional benefits over its potential to reduce discrimination, its origin in interest convergence is evident. Diversity skills can be marketed to employers. "Businesses want to hire graduates who understand their role in building a truly inclusive culture," OU explains on the program's site, and so the Experience "uses research-based curriculum to equip students for future employment." Moreover, the training may even hamstring graduates who aren't white men. Researchers found that minority executives (white women and people of color) who promote diversity in the workplace are rated worse by their supervisors than are white men doing the same. The business model for diversity teaches students about cultural preferences and how to avoid offense, but it is ill-equipped to unpack social group power dynamics. This disconnect was painfully brought to life by a recent commercial featuring Kendell Jenner slipping a cold Pepsi into the hand of a white police officer in riot gear — to the cheers of a diverse crowd of protesters.

Students of color can benefit from diversity trainings and curricula, but the outcomes are not uniform and may even be counter-productive. This is because initiatives like OU's Experience were not designed for them or to reduce the discrimination against them. Next fall, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa will roll out its "diversity and inclusion" requirement as part of its general education program. Matthew Bruce, a member of the executive board of the school's Black Student union, bluntly expressed his doubts about the requirement: "I don't necessarily see a course designed for people who are culturally incompetent as empowering students of color." Mandatory courses on "cultural competency" often further stigmatize and isolate students of color.

It's not only administrators whom student leaders work to hold accountable — faculty members have also been called out by students, partly because they are more familiar figures, but also because tenured faculty can seem to be able to get away with anything, including racism. And while student activists and an institution's governing board might find a lot to agree with over diversity-friendly personnel policies, faculty can struggle to locate their place within this kind of interest convergence.

In California, Pomona College entered the spotlight last year because of new diversity and inclusion tenure requirements. Pomona students volunteered examples of practices they would consider tenure-threatening. These included "Teaching an economics course on poverty using only white scholars" and "Saying things that are blatantly rude or disrespectful to students based on their background." Seemingly in response, the Oregon Association of Scholars recently released a report highly critical of what it calls "ideological litmus tests" for faculty hiring and evaluation. It names four Oregon public universities whose diversity policies allegedly violate academic freedom and unfairly target "non-left wing scholars."

Yet many faculty are in favor of personnel policies that reward them for bringing equity, diversity, and inclusion to their profession. Pomona's policy, however, is remarkable because it regards diversity as not "just a plus but a requirement" for tenure, according to Eric A. Hurley, a psychology and Africana studies professor who worked on the policy. At other institutions such as Virginia Tech, faculty "may" account for "diversity and inclusion" in applications for tenure and promotion, but they are not required to do so — a distinction its Provost made sure to emphasize publicly.

Weak diversity policies fail to change the status quo today because they trade binding commitment for symbolism and good intentions.

Interest convergence provides a lens for keener insight into policies that on the surface seem to offer obvious diversity benefits. For example, the Excelsior Scholarship, New York State's plan for free college tuition at its public colleges and universities, provides free tuition in exchange for a promise to attend college full-time, graduate on time, and live and work in New York for as many years as their scholarship was awarded. While the Excelsior Scholarship will no doubt boost college enrollments, its conditions assure that it will disproportionately benefit middle-class families and thus probably widen the racial educational gap — because Pell grants and other aid already pay tuition for poor students. And if the plan is ever broadly perceived as disproportionately benefiting students of color, calls for cutting or eliminating its funding are highly likely.

Might a period be on the horizon when a white student's discomfort in an ethnic studies class verges on a civil rights violation?

An institution might prepare for this day by understanding its diversity policies as naked interest convergence. This will entail making the case that white students and faculty benefit just as much from them as do their peers of color, if not more. But the core argument can no longer be the vague "compelling interest" of diversity. It must be economic. Instead of measuring qualitative outcomes such as "cultural competency" or "cognitive empathy," institutions might measure "salary upon graduation" or "promotions to full professor." Had affirmative action been consistently measured on similar merits, how much white people benefit from it would be common knowledge.

Interest convergence offers the most sobering and viable approach for the contentious issues around diversity and inclusion.

If white interests must continually be met so that they might leave behind a whit of racial justice, then the theory can make the future seem cynical or even hopeless. Interest convergence is not without its critics. Justin Driver has challenged it on multiple grounds, pointing out its contradictions and the necessary diminishment of black agency in its insistence upon the permanence of racism. But so much depends on our capacity to be open to the idea. Even if enduring white supremacy is a foregone conclusion, that fact does not preclude the possibility of individual righteous action, which is its own liberation.

David Shih is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Follow him @ProfessorShih.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Shih