The race for Critical Race Theory
Christopher Rufo on what ails America, the parent revolt happening inside schools, and recreating what Tocqueville saw
Christopher Rufo is a political activist who has been leading a very prominent media war against ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT), a concept I won’t even dare to define but which Pull Request readers have surely seen in various guises all over their feeds.
In doing my Rufo deep dive, it was news to me that you had done this serious documentary on the state of the United States: America Lost. You might consider this to be an unflattering comparison, but watching your film reminded me of early Michael Moore actually, back when he was ‘good’.
Roger & Me was a great film that he did in the 90s, it must've been. I can't remember.
Something like that, late 80s, early 90s [eds. note: 1989]. You're right, it was really good. He took one town, Flint, Michigan, which is now known for a bunch of stuff, and just captured the bleak despair and hard reality of it, I think in the same way that you looked at three different American cities: Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California.
Yeah, it is pretty interesting. I think looking at the reflection of myself in the media over the last six months, or a year, is sometimes surprising and bewildering. It's like you look in the mirror and it's something quite different. And a lot of people don't know that I spent the first decade-plus of my career directing documentaries. I did four that broadcast nationally on PBS, I sold one to Netflix. I was in a very different world. And I think with America Lost, it was for me, a huge shift, a huge internal change, and spending a lot of time looking at real life in the poorest and most desperate communities in the United States.
So with that as my background, having been there when the kid gets shot and killed in the gas-station mini-mart, being there six inches away from the casket when it's getting lowered on a murder victim, or being there when some wayward father is coming back out of prison and trying to rebuild his family—all of these wrenching human situations—and then now making this transition and looking at something like critical race theory, which is abstract, effete, intellectual, self-serving, elite-driven, and really elite-oriented. And then seeing this yawning gap between the two, this human carnage below, and then this really self-serving intellectualism above that has nothing to offer most people.
And that's, I think, what really drives me in this fight against the critical ideologies, specifically critical race theory, is that they make a huge show about the revolution, and anti-capitalism, and the poor, and the marginalized, and the intersectionally-oppressed. And then you read, read, read, read thousands of pages of their literature, and then you think about what's actually happening in a place like Stockton or Youngstown or Memphis, and you realize they have nothing to offer, absolutely nothing. I think it's a great bait and switch, and it's really at heart a scam. I think it's an intellectual scam that is really designed for intra-elite competition within our institutions. And many decades ago, they abandoned any genuine thought or reflection or action that might benefit the poorest people in our country.
There was some polling data that came out recently, I think I saw it first via a Noah Smith retweet, about the fact that a majority of Black Americans actually oppose CRT in schools.
That's right. Yeah, that's polling data from my colleague, Michael Hendrix at the Manhattan Institute, and it shows that in America's 20 fastest-growing cities—these are cities that have dynamic growth, they're diversifying, they're people that are seeking opportunity—critical race theory in the classroom, including lessons on systemic racism and white privilege, is opposed by parents at I think a 41-point margin. And that includes white parents, black parents, Asian parents, Latino parents. And this is consistent with polling data from Rasmussen and other places, where Americans do not want this.
And although The New York Times and The Washington Post have attempted to frame it as white backlash, or white resentment, or white racism plainly, the numbers don't support it. In fact, the people who are most likely to support it are white progressives, and everyone else actually opposes it, and in some case by large margins. Latinos by a two-to-one margin, Asian-Americans by a two-to-one margin. Depending on the polling data, African-Americans can go either way, it's somewhere in the middle.
But these ideologies are unpopular among real people, I think because they don't inspire, they don't give anyone a sense of their own possibility. They don't give white kids a sense of their own possibility, but in a proportionate way, they don't give minority kids a sense of their own possibility. And they trap people in this endless loop of oppressor/oppressed dichotomies, and it's a sure-fire path to make you miserable. And you look at the history of these ideas, and they've invariably led to disappointment.
You look at the first wave of critical theory. You look at the second wave of critical praxis in the 1970s. Then you go dormant for a little while as the Soviet Union collapses and these ideas get thoroughly discredited, and now you've revived it with Critical Race Theory. And I think that what you see even graphically in the usage of these terms, or you see graphically in their adoption by institutions, it can either be two things: It can be truly a revolution, where the world kind of goes in a 180-degree turn. Or it could be another fad, another kind of desperate clinging to some novelty that eventually crashes and burns like it has before.
I look at the media, and it's like, "Chris Rufo, right-wing ideologue, flame-throwing maniac, clever propagandist," The Times says. And it's funny to me because I've lived in Seattle, and LA, and San Francisco, and DC. I'm an avid kombucha drinker.
Right, so you said a lot there, and I tend to agree with you. Potentially the worst way to get rid of racism is talking about it 24/7. But one thing you said earlier I wanted to address: The data that we just cited from the Manhattan Institute, or other data like the 97% of Hispanic Americans who don’t use Latinx (and I happen to be among those 97%). These are examples of a somewhat bizarre elite race politics that are pushed from the top down, and then AstroTurfed into being a progressive working class thing. And as the data shows, it really isn’t.
But here’s a debate that I've had with a lot of my friends: Is there actually, to use a Nixonian phrase, a silent majority of people who in fact are not on board with much of what we're talking about—CRT, LatinX, and all the rest of it? Is it the case that 80-plus percent of Americans are saying, "This is kind of dumb and I don’t agree with it, but I'm just going along." Are they Havel’s Greengrocer or are some of them getting permanently swayed, with views changing as they do on other issues?
There absolutely is a silent majority, but it's based on a new consensus. So in 1968, in the Nixon era, there was still a significant portion of the country that held racist attitudes and beliefs, how we'd characterize them now. If you look at that chart on interracial marriage acceptance, it's going up but it's still kind of middling in 1968. And certainly they were only four years away from Jim Crow laws, this is a huge transition point. You started to see an uptick in violence by 1969, 1970, 1971, politically motivated violence. You had, in that period, something like 2,000 politically motivated property bombings, Molotov cocktails, dynamite, et cetera.
So the position we're in today is very different. You have essentially universal acceptance of interracial marriage, which I think we can take as general proxy for racial attitudes, especially because we can measure it over a long period of time.
Can I just nuance that with one thing? Sorry to interrupt, but one thing is revealed preferences and other polling data. Timur Kuran wrote this great book Private Truth, Public Lies about this. If you put a microphone in somebody's face, these days nobody can actually say, "No, I don't think interracial marriage is good.” However, how many people will get upset if their kids actually did marry someone of another race or ethnicity? Is racism really on the decline? It might be a different number.
It might be, but I would say though, even in my own parents' time, there was significant family friction because my father was an Italian Catholic and my mother was a WASP Protestant, which is unimaginable today in the vast majority of the United States. But even if let's say there's still a racist remnant in the United States, in my experience, in my observation and my extensive travel, I think it's a very small group of people, and almost all of those people have essentially no institutional, or professional, or educational power. I think that that is almost certainly true. So let's just assume though, with that caveat, let's assume that that's the new consensus. The new consensus is that overt racism is unacceptable to almost everyone, even if it's a revealed preference, or even if it's a public preference. Overt racism is unacceptable to everyone. I think that's really good, that's a sign of tangible progress.
But on top of this baseline of ‘overt racism is unacceptable,’ you have now this kind of ferment at the very top. I think that from the polling data that I've seen, and now the conversations that I've had all over the country, you do have probably 70% silent majority of people who oppose hyper-race-conscious politics in our institutions. So critical race theory is a good kind of synecdoche for that, seeing as how it’s opposed by this huge majority.
And I think what we're seeing now is this silent majority that in general is apathetic—the majority of people are just busy going to Costco, taking care of their kids, and showing up for work on time—they're now hitting the point where they can no longer laugh it off as a phenomenon restricted to university campuses or left-wing journals; it's actually starting to affect them.
This really only went into extreme acceleration last year. We're seeing the silent majority's red line: what is their point where they're tipped out of apathy into action. And we're seeing this now in thousands of school districts across the country. Parents are starting to reassert their democratic authority, and they're starting to draw a line for people to say, "We oppose racism, but we don't believe that critical race theory, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, or race-based quotas in education are good for any kids."
And what I think is also important to note within that is that these are places that aren't even necessarily driven by white parents, white families. You have Asian American groups who are really fighting hard, Latinos to a lesser extent, and to another lesser extent, African Americans. But we're seeing the great reassertion of democratic power and the democratic voice in the United States. And one place that's happening is within schools where people feel like the bureaucratic authorities are imposing on them an ideology that they didn't vote for and they don't want to pay for.
Well, Chris, it's democracy when it supports my views, but it's populism when it doesn't.
Fascism, it's fascism.
Fascism, that's right. It's interesting you think that, because as someone who kind of has a foot in the ‘red state’ world—I was raised in South Florida with Cuban Republican parents who worshiped Reagan—and having lived in rural America, I always thought that whenever this blue city stuff hit regular America, everything would go bonkers. Because most Americans outside coastal cities are going to think this is insane. Rightly or wrongly, this is not something they will default accept the same way that (say) the Apple HR department will, and say: "Oh yeah, this thing we invented seven seconds ago on Twitter is now the absolute Western civilizational view on this. And if you think otherwise, you are a Nazi."
I don't see a random working-class guy with a plumbing business outside of Reno, to pick a random hypothetical, really just nodding their head at this. It’ll be like an immune-system organ rejection at transplant time.
That's right yeah, and the irony is it's really a class-based elite colonization effort onto Middle America. And Christopher Lasch talks about this in the early nineties, and really sees all of the pieces starting to form into a coherent puzzle. They moved from kind of planning to implementation in the last decade, and then really implementing in the last 18 months.
People don't like it. People don't want to have in a way a foreign ideology imposed on them, and especially in ways where they sense that they're vulnerable: their children, their public schools, their local institutions. First, I think it's bewildering to people, and then it's infuriating. I'm in kind of ex-urban rural Washington state in a kind of 50/50 red/blue district, depending on which way you cut it. And I woke up one morning and saw that my local school district, without my involvement, had voted unanimously to ban critical race theory from the local schools. And I talked to my neighbors and said, "Oh yeah, we've been going to school board meetings, and we've been fighting, we've been messaging this person. The mayor's upset about it." And you see this almost New England town-hall revival where people say, "Wait a minute, I am absolutely opposed to what's happening. What mechanisms do I have to change it?" And then people are really funneling their energies at the lowest level, at the school-board level, at the city-council level, and I think that's good.
I think for decades now average Americans have delegated responsibility to public bureaucracies, which they know don't do a great job, but they really don't do a terrible job. They're focused on the basics of kind of municipal government: roads, schools, bridges, trash service, et cetera. But when they made the shift to now trying to convert their kids into a new ideology that's based on kind of 1970s- style race radicalism, then they're going to say, "Wait a minute. We gave you authority. We kind of put a long leash on you for the previous time period, but now we're going to shift. Now we're going to take control." I think it’s almost, you know if there's a hostage situation, you always want to see proof of life? I think that's where the United States is right now. It feels like these ideologies and elite institutions are strangling Middle America, and Middle America has now posted proof of life. And to me, this is just the beginning, and the contrast will become more stark in the months and years to come.