This week, I sat down with the Quillette podcast to discuss the campaign to ban critical race theory in public schools. Host Jonathan Kay challenged me with some of the Left’s common counterarguments, which maintain that state legislation is a blow to “free speech” and “academic freedom.” I explained why these counterarguments are wrong—and why our movement is destined to succeed.
Here is the full transcript of my interview.
Quillette: So we spoke on the Quillette podcast back in the summer of 2020. The subject then was something you’d written about homelessness, which I know has always been a big policy issue for you. But lot has happened to you in the last year. I distinctly remember that when we set up that interview a year ago, it was very straight forward. But now it’s more secretaries and publicists and stuff. Your stock has really taken off. How many interviews do you do every week?
Rufo: You know, I’ve had to actually put a hard cap on it. I try only to schedule two interviews per day, so I turn down 90 percent or so of what comes in. And it’s been a blessing. I love talking to people. I love engaging with people. I love debating people on the other side. To me, if I could just do interviews all day I would be happy, but then I wouldn’t be actually creating the content and doing the research and writing the pieces that are the foundation of what I’m doing.
Quillette: How much of that quantum shift in your stature is owed to the fact that someone in the Trump administration saw what you were doing and basically made your research the basis for an executive order about the content of educational materials to bureaucrats?
Rufo: So last summer I did a series of investigative reports on Critical Race Theory in federal agencies, everything ranging from the Department of Homeland Security, to the FBI, to the Treasury Department and even the National Nuclear Weapons Laboratory. Under the guise of “diversity trainings” they were promoting these really egregious, divisive materials. I did the series of reports and I had the chance to go on Tucker Carlson and to share one of his opening monologues. I’m told rarely happens in politics, but the stars were aligned and President Trump was watching the segment and instructed his team to contact me the next day.
Then they asked for my research, my opinion, some of the materials I had put together, and within three weeks, it had gone from a Tucker Carlson segment to a signed, sealed and delivered Executive Order that really was the beginning and first big break on this national story about Critical Race Theory.
Quillette: I’m going to push back a little on the idea that it’s a coincidence that Trump was watching Fox!
Rufo: Fair enough!
Quillette: But let me ask you about that, because I know you’re a serious person. Does it bother you that the vector for this came through Tucker Carlson, who occasionally says, in my opinion, some pretty bad things? And let’s face it, Donald Trump, even if you’re a conservative, he did a lot of reprehensible things. As an activist, I get that you want to take every avenue to publicize your cause, but do you have mixed feelings about the way that it happened, through Tucker Carlson and through Trump?
Rufo: No, not at all. I have really positive feelings about it. I’m an admirer of Tucker Carlson. I’m a fan of his work. I didn’t vote for President Trump in 2016. I’ve said that many times publicly. But I did vote for him in 2020. Here’s the thing, there’s always some potential to qualify or categorize something as a mixed feeling, but the reality is that I wanted to achieve an objective. And the way that you achieve objectives, if you’re a conservative in the United States in 2021, is to go on the biggest media platforms, and Tucker Carlson by far has the most dominant hour of television news in the country. So I made a direct appeal asking President Trump, by name, to take action, and that’s how you do it.
I think a lot of people in our world and our business make this distinction—I think a false distinction—between journalism and scholarship, and activism and advocacy. But to me, we want to be effective in the world. We want to do substantive work. We want to base our own personal work on good research, good substance, good reporting. But I also want to be effective in the world, and I want to use whatever avenues are necessary. And when you have the chance to actually ask the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, to shift policy a bit towards your direction, I would do so unapologetically. I would do so for President Biden. I doubt he’d listen. That’s just how it works.
Quillette: I read a New Yorker profile of you, and I thought it was quite torqued against you. The headline they put on it was ridiculous. But there actually was a lot of interesting stuff in that profile, including the fact—I didn’t know this—you’re the son of Italian immigrants. One thing I’ve found is that a lot of the people who read Quillette, who listen to the podcast, a disproportionate number of them are either immigrants or children of immigrants who appear to have a deeper appreciation for classical liberalism and reject some of the anti-liberal fads you see on campuses and in the progressive sector of politics. Do you see a connection there?
Rufo: Yeah, my own family background is kind of interesting. My grandfather and my aunts and uncles who still live in Italy are actually all communists. They’re kind of Gramscian communist intellectuals, and still committed to that. They’ve rebranded as the Democratic Party of the Left in Italy, but it is really a kind of communist framework that they subscribe to. That’s my family background make of it what you will.
Obviously now we disagree on politics, but I think what I’ve learned in my reporting, talking to Chinese immigrants, Russian immigrants, Eastern European immigrants, Latin American immigrants that have immigrated from communist and socialist countries, is that these folks are often on the front lines fighting against Critical Race Theory. They’re often the ones who are really sounding the alarm in places like San Francisco, in Northern Virginia, in Los Angeles and New York City even, because they’ve seen what these ideologies can do to human beings. They see how something like Critical Race Theory, when you strip it down to its essentials, shares many of those same impulses and ideas, and even solutions as ideologies, that ruined their home countries, stripped people of their basic dignities, and plunged these societies into darkness.
Quillette: Here in Canada some of my newer friends, and followers, a lot of them are Muslims. A lot of them come from Iran. They fled the revolution there in 1979. They’ll say to me, and they’ll say to the public on Twitter, “Look, I didn’t flee one theocratic revolution so that I could get swept up in another here in North America with a bunch of progressives telling me I’ve got to get woke.” They recognize the telltale signs of social panic and forced ideological indoctrination. In fact, I’ve actually seen some bridge building between Jews and Muslims on this issue.
Rufo: Absolutely. It’s really been kind of a beautiful thing to see. On the point about Muslims, I interviewed a woman in the Portland, Oregon area who was an immigrant from Iran, and she was telling me, “I grew up in Tehran, chanting ‘death to America!’ every day before school. And I feel like my daughter and I escaped that system. We escaped that theocracy. And I feel like my daughter is going through, not the same thing, but it’s giving me that same feeling, the feeling of indoctrination, the feeling of hatred of the United States.”
And what I’m seeing is a huge political shift where a lot of my closest, strongest, and frankly most effective allies are people who are not traditional conservatives. There are people on the center-left, they’re center-left liberals in very left-leaning places like New York and LA and San Francisco and Chicago, etc. Asian-Americans have taken the lead. You have a lot of African Americans now speaking out against Critical Race Theory. You have people born and bred in the United States and people who are recent immigrants, and you have this coalition that’s forming and shifting the typical, and maybe traditional, political boundaries and political alliances.
And I think that’s great. I think it’s really stimulating for me to assemble this coalition of people who all share these values and commitments, even if on many other issues we come from opposite points of view.
Quillette: Also because of some of the gender stuff you actually see people who conservatives would have dismissed as militant lesbians 10 or 15 years ago, who are on the righteous side of the gender war. It is definitely a time for strange political bedfellows.
This New Yorker article, I’m going to come back to it because it was written in a weird way. At the beginning it talked about where you get a lot of your source material. It talks about how, because of the pandemic, a lot of meetings—I would call them indoctrination sessions—take place on ZOOM calls, where it’s very easy for people to record stuff. It used to be that you’d maybe get your sensitivity training in a room and it was difficult to record, even if you wanted to. Now, if somebody is giving you the gospel according to Kendi over ZOOM, it’s real easy to record it and send it to someone like you.
And this New Yorker author seems like resent it like, “God, because of this technology they have the goods on us.” A few scoops we’ve had at Quillette, including a few I’ve written, have been based on that. Do you worry that with the end of the pandemic some of your source material is going to dry up? Because some of your best pieces have been based pretty much on people just kind of slipping you a movie file.
Rufo: I’m not worried about that at all, because corporations and public schools and large institutions, they always leave a paper trail. And I found that actually the most effective communication methods are aren’t actually video and audio, although sometimes those can be quite damning, it’s actually PDFs and Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. It’s that actual raw documentation that exists everywhere. And I will say, and this is a kind of exclusive that I haven’t announced to the public, that I’ve actually obtained all of the diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism files for I believe 30 of the top Fortune 100 companies. And these are internally available that have been leaked to me externally. They’re atrocious as I think we’ll see in the coming days as I start this new series. It’s really a target rich environment for someone who wants to fight against this stuff, because it seems to be everywhere.
Quillette: You say it’s not slowing down, except that you have created a few cautionary tales. There was one case at America’s atomic agency, I think. Was it Los Alamos that was doing this thing about toxic masculinity or something?
Rufo: Yeah, their sister laboratory, the Sandia National Labs.
Quillette: You identified it and published the goods, and within a pretty short period of time they were forced to backtrack. I guess the proof of how unpopular and cultish this stuff is, is that as soon as it’s published widely people are outraged by it, which would not be true of basic material that says “don’t be sexist, don’t be racist, don’t be a prick.” If you publish that, nobody would care.
There’s been a number of these scenarios, and you’ve been at the heart of a lot of these disclosures. Isn’t it the case that in a lot of conference rooms, people are saying, “Look, if we persist down this path, we’re going to get Rufoed?
Rufo: Yeah. School administrators have been whispering “Don’t get caught by Chris Rufo. We have to be careful and hide what we’re doing,” which I find funny. But yeah, we have had some big successes. Obviously, we’ve passed state legislation and in six states, and hopefully that number will increase, protecting tens of millions of Americans from Critical Race Theory indoctrination and state-sanctioned racism in public schools. But also, even on the corporate side, I actually exposed Lockheed Martin corporation for forcing white male executives to denounce their “white male privilege” and “internalized whiteness,” what have you.
They were actually put under a Senate investigation from Senator Tom Cotton. They were forced to really backtrack. I also exposed the Walt Disney Company, and they initially tried to defend themselves. They actually, and preposterously, put out a statement that said we can’t possibly be racist because we made Black Panther, which is like the corporate PR equivalent of the black friend defense. But then within 48 hours, because I kept the pressure up, they nuked their entire anti-racism program from their internal website. Just deleting it for all employees.
Quillette: What’s interesting about these companies is that you expect it from Ben and Jerry’s or Lulu Lemon. Like, I have this stereotypical vision of the fashion industry. I’ve gone to some fashion industry gallows and it’s super woke. But Lockheed Martin? They make weapons systems that are capable of killing millions of people. Is there any rhyme or reason or pattern to which companies are going in for this stuff?
Rufo: Yeah, this is actually kind of a really interesting question and I haven’t yet necessarily found an answer that completely satisfies me, because on the face of it it seems kind of absurd. You have Lockheed Martin, defense contractors, and large multinational corporations embracing these fashionable theories of intersectionality that makes sense maybe in a college seminar, but I have a couple of hypotheses, a couple of things that I think may be at play.
One is that these companies feel immense pressure. They feel like this is a defensive mechanism. It’s almost an insurance policy against getting canceled, or mobbed, or denounced by the media or left-wing activists. They do this almost prophylactically to try to prevent some sort of damage from occurring.
And then I think there’s also internal dynamics that I’ve seen within these companies where you have a small group of people, usually in departments, kind of soft departments, like HR, marketing, publicity, that you have a small group of true believers and they’re able to use emotional arguments and often manipulative arguments to essentially bully C-suite executives into accepting these programs. And then once they get a foothold, they’re impossible to get rid of. They can only expand.
And then third, my own hypothesis is that in the last 20 years we’ve educated a huge number of college graduates in grievance studies, in a race and gender ideology, in critical theory.
The old joke from conservatives is like, “Ha-ha, look at these people. They’re never going to be able to get jobs!” But the actual truth of the matter is that they have created their own jobs, as a microaggression investigator or diversity commissar.
Quillette: Michigan State University…
Rufo: Tens of millions of dollars a year on this stuff, right?
Quillette: Yeah, what was even more shocking—because universities blow money on all sorts of things—was that there was over a hundred people in their Diversity department. I think there were similar numbers for Ohio State. I’ve done stories on places like Haverford and Brandeis, and these aren’t big schools. An academic department might only have five or six professors in some cases, but you’ll walk into the Student Center and the Diversity department has like 20 people working there.
Let me ask you about this. You mentioned, with pride, that Senator Tom Cotton, who is a Republican, launched an investigation into Lockheed Martin, a huge government contractor, on the basis of your investigation. Do you worry that there are maybe some McCarthyist overtones to this? Because I don’t agree with the extreme formulation of Critical Race Theory that’s taught or that’s implemented in a lot of companies. On the other hand, once you get government using the investigative powers to look at the training methods inside companies and stuff like that, that is kind of like McCarthyism.
Rufo: No, I really strongly disagree for two reasons. First off Lockheed Martin, for example, it’s not just any company. It derives the vast majority of its revenue through government contracts. It has a tight relationship with the federal government, and therefore should be subject to greater oversight. But even in principle, as a general principle, companies—private companies in the United States—can’t violate the civil rights laws of this country. You can’t do it. And these investigations into these practices are simply investigating whether or not these companies are violating existing civil rights laws.
So it strikes me as odd that people would suggest that this is ideological in nature, when the actual substance of these investigations is not to test ideological purity. Lockheed Martin, if they wanted to, could be a full-blown social justice company, they could promote Antonio Gramsci to their employees. I would have no problem with that. Where I do have a problem is if they are perpetuating racial scapegoating, stereotyping, and discrimination that is illegal.
Quillette: Careful about that Gramsci talk, it sounds like you’re trying to get jobs for your relatives back in Italy!
Look, so I’m on your mailing list, and here’s some of your subject lines: “We’re going to win the fight against CRT,” “Standing against Critical Race Theory,” “How to fight Critical Race Theory,” “The case against Critical Race Theory.” I am suspicious of any doctrine that’s tribalizing. Whenever anyone talks about “whiteness,” or says “the problem with our society is whiteness,” I think, well, actually we have a lot of problems in our society and reducing it to whiteness versus non-whiteness is tribalistic and racist, but you see people do that on the right and the left.
Do you worry that by focusing so much attention on Critical Race Theory, which again, in its militant variant I probably oppose as much as you do, that you’re creating a new kind of tribalism of the Critical Race Theorists and their acolytes against everyone else?
Rufo: No, tribalism exists. You can call it tribalism, or you can call it political polarization. It exists for a good reason. We’re a country that has two dominant political parties. They compete against one another. They have different values, different priorities, different policies that they propose. So if you want to be effective in American politics, by how the structure of it works, you have to choose a side, make alliances with that side, advance your agenda through partnerships, communications, research, policy proposals, and effective public persuasion. And then you have to motivate the public, the voters, parents in this case for Critical Race Theory in schools, and eventually you have to motivate legislators. These are the people who set the rules and the laws of the land.
This idea that you should reject political polarization, reject tribalism, not pick sides, try to be above the fray, in my mind is maybe well-intentioned, it’s maybe high-minded, it’s maybe noble in some abstract sense, but it’s guaranteed to be ineffective. And my goal, and I’m very clear about this—people sometimes beat up on me about it but I’m very honest about it—is a political objective. I have set clear desires for how I would like the world to be, and I’m going to go after it through partnerships with people who are on my team. So you have to decide which one do you want? I don’t think fence sitting is going to help because Critical Race Theory is a totalizing ideology.
Quillette: When we spoke a year ago, you brought a lot of this stuff back to Marxism, and it’s absolutely true that Marxism remains a powerful influence on progressive thought. But one thing that makes me uneasy about that is when I look at some of the emerging allies in the fight against anti-liberal forms of progressive doctrine, even broader than Critical Race Theory, for example the social panic over so-called “whiteness” or some of the gender stuff, I’ve noticed that some of the most outspoken and imaginative critics of this hyper-progressive mania, a lot of them are actually Marxists. Sometimes they’re older, they’re socialists who still believe that class and income are the most important things and determine who’s lucky and who’s not in society, and I actually agree with a lot of what they say.
Do you worry that with some of your rhetoric about Marxism—and I’m not saying you’re not allowed to criticize Marx—and by bringing capitalism into it so much, you’re potentially turning away some of those disaffected socialists and liberals, and even self-declared Marxists?
Rufo: No, I don’t think so. I think that disaffected Marxists are maybe overrepresented on something like an academic campus, but make such a fractional minority of voters of the public.
Quillette: But they have more moral authority than you or I do to criticize the left, and some of them are former fellow travelers of these people who were spouting the woke nonsense.
Rufo: In that sense, yeah. In that sense, I would agree. I mean, there’s some utility to that. Listen, I’m open to any alliance. If you want to work with me, I embrace you in the coalition if you’re a disaffected Marxist, but I think that we can’t forget though that Critical Race Theory is a Marxist ideology. It derives from critical theory, which is explicitly Marxist. And even one of the founders of Critical Race Theory, Richard Delgado, when he describes in an interview the first conference that established the discipline of Critical Race Theory, he describes the group as “a bunch of Marxists.”
At the time they weren’t hiding it, but they’re hiding it now because it’s unpopular. But we should really not underestimate the Marxist core of Critical Race Theory. And we should also not underestimate the Critical Race Theorist’s proposed solutions, which in the case of many and perhaps most of the scholars, involves state control over the economy. It involves collectivist enterprise. It involves race-based redistribution of wealth and property. That’s how they think they’re going to achieve equality, and I just fundamentally and wholeheartedly disagree with it. We have the evidence from a century of Marxist regimes in the previous century. We should absolutely and categorically reject that way of organizing society and of organizing the economy.
Quillette: A lot of these legislation initiatives at the state-level to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools, the laws vary but the thing that concerns me most is when teachers teach Critical Race Theory in school. And I’m talking about like the militant formulation of Critical Race Theory. Obviously it bothers me that they’re teaching this cultish stuff, but it bothers me more that they want to teach it, that it’s considered—or they regard it—as a mainstream pedagogical movement.
If you ban it by law and make it a kind of language of dissent, or a sort of forbidden knowledge or forbidden pedagogy, isn’t that sort of a shortcut, which doesn’t get you anywhere? Shouldn’t the goal be through culture to convince people that these aren’t good ideas, as opposed to you’re not allowed to teach them?
Rufo: No, you have to do both, and it’s very important. And I think that this really strikes at a fundamental misperception. The fact is that we have publicly-funded schools that operate as an educational monopoly in our country. This isn’t a free Marketplace of Ideas. Public schools do not have First Amendment rights. And the fact is that the status quo, the existing state of affairs, is that state legislatures get to decide what’s in the curriculum and what’s not in the curriculum. They get to decide what to include and what to exclude.
In many cases state legislators and courts have chosen to exclude things that conservatives would like, like saying the pledge of allegiance, or prayer in schools, or celebratory histories. And then conservative legislatures and courts have an equal right to say we’re going to exclude things that we don’t like, like race essentialism, like collective guilt, like Critical Race Theory.
This is a basic function. When you have a public institution, the legislature is the vehicle that decides how it functions, what materials it promotes, and what values and virtues it includes in the curriculum. And I think that the idea that somehow this creates a forbidden knowledge, or something very attractive for resisting, misses the mark on two points. It misses the mark, first of all, because this is actually the dominant ideology in public education. This isn’t resistance, this isn’t rebellion, this isn’t counterculture. This is the hegemonic culture of the institutions, of public school bureaucracies, of graduate schools of education, of teacher training programs, et cetera. And then second, public schools in the United States chose, within their right, to ban something like Creationism. I don’t think teenagers are hanging out under the bleachers reading critiques of Darwin.
Sometimes the best way to do something is just the most direct way. For voters, through their state legislators, to say this is what we want to teach and convey to our kids, and this is what we don’t want to teach incubate to our kids.
And I think it’s important for one reason. Critical Race Theory practice in education does a couple of things. It compels speech that violates the conscience of students, and it manipulates people as young as four and five years old into a racialist ideology that violates the sense of basic dignity. These are vulnerable kids who are compelled to be in these state institutions, and you have to offer them greater protections.
Listen, if you want to teach Critical Race Theory in higher education, I have no problem with that.
Quillette: What about private schools?
Rufo: Private school is fine. If you want to teach Critical Race Theory at your private school—hell, if you want to teach Critical Race Theory in your public school in Brooklyn, New York, or Berkeley, California, I have no problem with that. If that’s what voters want, if that’s what parents want, if that’s what the public wants, they’re free to do so. We live in a pluralist society. I don’t have to impose my values on them, but by the same token they are not allowed to impose their values on me. That’s how our society should work. That’s the way, if you want to think of it this way, to depolarize some of these fights and to provide people with the most freedom and opportunity to pursue their vision.
Quillette: You and I have both seen this crazy pedagogical plan in California where you couldn’t even understand half the stuff. It was written in this kind of progressive gobbledygook. So California is going way off the deep end, and then you’ve got red states, which are going in the opposite direction. This polarization is happening on the level of education for ten-year-olds. Maybe it’s inevitable because of the world we live in, but that’s worrying, no? On a state-by-state level?
Rufo: It is, but that’s how the United States works. And it’s a system that I support. I think federalism is important. I think local control of the curriculum is important. And we’re now experimenting as these curricula in the deepest blue states become radicalized, in places where they’re actually mandating the inclusion of Critical Race Theory in the state curriculum in California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois. They’re training teachers along the lines of these principles.
They’re embarking on an experiment that I think will ultimately fail and will ultimately harm children, but it’s an experiment that they’re entitled to embark on. And I may not like it, I may not personally support it—I advocate against it—but they’re allowed to pursue their own vision, just like Texas, Idaho, Arkansas, New Hampshire, et cetera, the states that have banned these Critical Race Theory principles in their school curricula, are entitled to pursue theirs.
I think that the real question, the real asymmetry, is that somehow the narrative—really a mainstream narrative—is that it is okay for blue states to mandate the inclusion of Critical Race Theory in their state curricula. That’s not controversial, but somehow it’s illegitimate or extremely controversial for red states to mandate the exclusion of those same principles. This strikes me as unfair, as illogical, as irrational, but I think it also speaks to the political playing field that is the reality. The reality is that the media institutions and the academic institutions in our country have no problem with things ratcheting left, but they absolutely flip out, freak out, and go into full panic and meltdown when things seem to be shifting right. And in my work I hope to change that dynamic. I hope actually to break that dynamic and show that conservatives should stand up for their values and their principles and should be unafraid and unashamed to advocate for the best education for their kids.
Quillette: It may surprise some listeners to know that I studied Critical Race Theory when I was at law school in the early and mid 90s. Actually, it was in a course that was called Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory was a component of it.
The doctrine wasn’t as far advanced as it is now in terms of some of the wing-nut stuff about “whiteness” and the Robin D’Angelo stuff, which demands that whites go around in a state of constant self-flagellation and so forth. Rather, it was a little bit more focused on the actual real-life problems that black people faced. And there was some stuff we learned that really resonated with me. I was a Canadian going to an American law school, so it was also an education in the way Americans talk about race.
One of the things, and this is a well-known example I’m sure you’ve heard, is that, at the time at least, the drug laws in the United States were such that the penalties were much more severe for crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine. And the explanation was because crack cocaine was primarily, at that time, a “black” drug and powdered cocaine was more likely to be used by wealthier white people. And so the laws in question didn’t make any mention of race, but effectively these were laws that were racist. And there was a number of examples like that discussed in the class.
We would now call this systemic racism, institutional racism, racism that doesn’t announce itself as racism but is effectively racist. Do you concede that there’s a grain of truth to these claims which, again at least at the time, was one of the main principles of Critical Race Theory?
Rufo: Yeah, I think you’re correct in your diagnosis and your observation that it’s a very different field and discipline and set of concepts now than it was in the 1990s. And sure, I read a lot of Critical Race Theory, for better or for worse, and there are certain ideas that I think are true, but I think what you’re pointing out is the premise of Critical Race Theory, right? The premise is that the America has a history of, and really every country, I think Canada included, has a history of slavery, segregation, racism, and racial injustice. That’s undoubtedly true. I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that. But the problem is that Critical Race Theory often used that premise as a cudgel to beat people into submitting to their conclusions, which are that we should abandon systems of individual rights, meritocracy, capitalism, colorblindness, free speech, the Constitution, et cetera. And those are radical conclusions that I disagree with wholeheartedly, even if I can see that some of their premises are true, are correct, are accurate.
I think the idea about systemic racism, that’s an important point. I tend to think that systemic racism is real. For example, today, in a legal sense, there is systemic racism against Asian Americans in college admissions. That’s a fact, that’s a form of systemic race-based discrimination. I also think that a lot of the policies that we saw emerging in the 1960s, the anti-poverty policies of the Lyndon Johnson era, I think those actually resulted in systemic racism. If you look at the outcomes of those policies, even if they were well-intentioned, I think in many cases they made situations worse for people of all racial groups, but because of how poverty and race are correlated, they predominantly affected African-Americans. I’ve documented that in a film for PBS, for example.
So if I can, as a conservative, say that I think systemic racism is exists because X, Y, and Z, and a Critical Race Theorists can say they think systemic racism exists because of A, B, and C—totally opposite perspectives—what’s the validity of the concept? Or is it really just kind of an empty signifier that we can toss around as a political football but doesn’t actually reveal anything deep, or profound, or actionable about the world we live in?
Quillette: In the New Yorker article, one of the interesting things they did is they reached out to Kimberly Williams Crenshaw, who is a scholar at UCLA and Columbia Law School. She specializes in race and gender issues and she is known in particular for creating the doctrine of intersectionality, and she was a leading scholar in the field of Critical Race Theory, and they interviewed her for this new Yorker article. And after she’s introduced, you sort of expect that she’s going to be all fire and brimstone about you and wonder how anyone can oppose all this stuff that’s going on, but she was actually a little bit more nuanced than that. She basically said, “Yeah some of the stuff that flies under the banner of Critical Race Theory doesn’t look so kosher to me.
I got the sense that if you and she were in the same room together, I don’t know that you’d agree on 50 percent of things, but you might agree on 10 or 20 percent of things. Have you ever met her or talked to her, or any of the handful of giants in the field of Critical Race Theory who created it back in the late 20th century?
Rufo: I haven’t had direct engagement, but I would love to. I’d be very much open to that, and I think your reading of it is correct. Crenshaw, who actually coined the term Critical Race Theory, is running away from anti-racism programs and Critical Race Theory-based school curricula, and I think that’s significant. When you have the founder of the discipline looking at what that discipline has wrought in reality, not in academic journals, but in actual training modules and school curricula, it’s very significant that they are actually running away from the outcomes of their own ideas.
I think what they’re trying to do is create a separation. They’re trying to say, well, Critical Race Theory “Theory” is great. It’s perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s still valid, but Critical Race Theory as praxis looks wrong, it goes too far, it’s not effective. But my argument is that any critical theory, by the definitions of critical theory from people like Herbert Marcuse, theory and praxis are inseparable, so the implementation of Critical Race Theory is innately and inextricably linked to its theory. I think Crenshaw and others are starting to run away from it, but I’m not going to let them run away from it because I think that they have to actually reckon with, and actually grapple with, the consequences of their ideas.
Quillette: Well, maybe in some future podcasts we can get Kimberly Williams Crenshaw and you on the same show and maybe.
Rufo: Yeah, I would love that, and I appreciate it and appreciate even our points of disagreement because this is what we need, we need structured and constructive disagreement across different ideas and across different disciplines. That will make us all better.
Quillette: Christopher Rufo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He also has a film out called America Lost, which you can see for free at AmericaLostFilm.com. Thanks so much for the interview.
Originally published in Quillette.