Last week, The New Yorker published a long profile about my life and my work fighting critical race theory. Although it is a magazine of the political Left, the reporter, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, approached the story with an open mind and a balanced perspective.
Besides the somewhat inflammatory headline, I think the profile does justice to my views and my accomplishments in politics over the past year. I’ve published the full text of my initial interview below. Read the full story here.
The New Yorker: What is the emotional core of the political resistance to CRT? In other words, when parents of schoolchildren are outraged or upset about CRT intrusion into curricula and teacher training, what are they upset about? How would you characterize the emotion of the people who have been moved by your reporting?
Christopher F. Rufo: Americans can feel in their bones that something is happening in their schools, workplaces, churches, and government agencies. They understand that a hostile ideology is devouring their primary meaning-making institutions, but they don’t know how to describe it or what to do about it—and they certainly don’t know how to fight back. There is a powerful set of social incentives against speaking out; they could get fired, ostracized, denounced, expelled. Even wealthy and successful people, who ostensibly have the means to insulate themselves, feel that the risk of dissent is too high.
I believe that my reporting helped spark this movement because I was able to verbalize what millions of Americans had been feeling, but nobody had been able to identify and explain in a compelling way. I understood that many of these phenomena—schools teaching third-graders that they’re “oppressors,” companies hosting “white privilege” struggle sessions, local governments segregating employees by race—derive from the intellectual framework of critical race theory. So I devised a strategy to build a brand out of “critical race theory” and broke a series of stories that generated hundreds of millions of direct media impressions and, more importantly, drove people to action. Once you name the problem, you give people a target and the permission to act.
We should also be clear about the who question: this isn’t a movement of “white people” lashing out against “diversity and inclusion.” The most compelling interviews I’ve done have been with immigrants. Chinese-American families told me that what’s happening in our institutions reminds them of the early stages of the Cultural Revolution. An Iranian-American mother told me that her daughter’s education resembles her own upbringing in Tehran, where she was forced to chant “Death to America” before school. An immigrant from the former USSR told me that the brainwashing in her child’s school is as bad as the propaganda she endured under communism. All of these people understand where this path leads. They’ve seen it in their home countries and they are sounding the alarm here in America.
The New Yorker: I’m curious, too, about how you understand the politics here. For elected officials who have expressed public concern about critical race theory, how would you characterize their positioning? What have they emphasized, in the cases and patterns they have drawn attention to, and what themes have they elevated?
Rufo: This entire movement has emerged from nothing. Last summer, I declared a “one-man war against critical race theory” on Tucker Carlson; today, millions of Americans have joined the fight, running for school boards, filing civil rights lawsuits, leaking documents to the media, demanding that their state legislators take action. Politicians in state houses and in Congress are playing catch-up and trying to learn very quickly about the issue and how to speak about it.
Strategically, as a matter of rhetoric, my argument has been that we should use the linguistic techniques of the critical theorists and apply them against their own intellectual movement, turning the language of subversion back on itself. So we take the phrase “critical race theory” and turn it into a national brand, giving American conservatives a new frame for understanding what’s happening around them. All of a sudden, when they see kindergarteners being told that they’re white supremacists or see vaccines being denied to certain racial groups, they can make the connection to critical race theory—and channel their emotional reaction into fighting a specific ideology and set of ideas.
And to be clear: this isn’t dishonest or inaccurate; it isn’t creating a bogeyman. Critical race theory is the operating ideology behind a lot of policymaking, from the garden-variety “internalized white supremacy” seminar to state governments employing “positive discrimination” to rectify “disparate outcomes.” Previously, these incidents seemed to be disconnected, disparate phenomena; now we have given people a frame that explains where these policies come from and how they’re justified. This also provides a central point of attack—you don’t have to attack each incident individually, you can attack them at their theoretical foundation.
The New Yorker: How does CRT differ in the real world from prior regimes that upset or outraged conservatives—political correctness, for instance. I’d like to pinpoint what’s new here—not theoretically, but in terms of what diversity coordinators or educational bureaucrats or human resource professionals are doing on the ground. Within the broader genre of progressivism-run-amok, what flags a story as CRT-related to you?
Rufo: We’ve needed new language for these issues. “Political correctness” is a dated term and, more importantly, doesn’t apply anymore. It’s not that elites are enforcing a set of manners and cultural limits, they’re seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race, It’s much more invasive than mere “correctness,” which is a mechanism of social control, but not the heart of what’s happening. The other frames are wrong, too: “cancel culture” is a vacuous term and doesn’t translate into a political program; “woke” is a good epithet, but it’s too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside.
“Critical race theory” is the perfect villain. It’s the label that the critical race theorists chose for themselves—it’s not an externally-applied pejorative—but its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as “creative” rather than “critical,” “individual” rather than “racial,” “practical” rather than “theoretical.” Strung together, the phrase “critical race theory” connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American. When the phrase leaves academia and makes contact with normal people, it takes on a new layer of meaning, and comes to be seen very negatively, both as language and as a set of specific ideas.
What’s new and frightening about critical race theory is the depth of its ambitions. They have taken political concepts and applied them to psychology, pedagogy, policy, industrial relations, even therapy. They want to revive the dream of the New Man, but have changed the focus and changed the method—they think race is the best mechanism to achieve their revolution.
The New Yorker: I wanted to draw a couple of examples from your recent work, and ask the same specific question about each of these stories. In the case of the Cupertino elementary school, who would you say is being harmed, and how? And in the case of the Springfield MO teacher training seminar, who would you say is being harmed, and how? Across the episodes you’ve highlighted, is there a way to characterize who is generally being harmed and how?
Rufo: I began the year with an investigative series on critical race theory in schools because I thought it had the best chance at eliciting an emotional response. People care about their kids, they care about their local schools, they have a personal stake in what happens in the classroom. These stories worked because they’re predicated on the concept of personal harm. It’s not “critical race theory is an unfalsifiable, fatalistic academic discipline”; it’s “critical race theory is hurting your children.” And this isn’t a matter of my opinion. For all of my education stories, parents and teachers leaked documents to me because they were convinced that critical race theory was directly harming their children—and they sent me the materials so I could fight back on their behalf.
Who is harmed? There are three answers to this question. First, many white parents, across the political spectrum, believe that categorizing their children as “racists,” “oppressors,” and “internalized white supremacists” is abusive—it manipulates guilt and shame using the same methods as a religious cult. Second, many racial minorities believe that condemning their children to the “oppressed” will limit their sense of agency and fill them with anxiety, pessimism, and despair; parents understand that these are destructive emotions, and despite the fact that they are sometimes rewarded in the short term, will ultimately harm their children. Third, critical race theory degrades institutions. It creates resentment in the workplace and demolishes the mechanisms of excellence in education—competitive admissions, merit-based grades, and advanced classes are all sacrificed to the theory, which never seems to help anyone advance in practical terms.
Critical theory is pure negation, pure destruction—Marcuse called it “the power of negative thinking.” Most Americans don’t see the world that way.
The New Yorker: You’ve written several times that the emphasis on racial equity in training, curricula, and HR materials operates for critical race theorists as a first step towards Marxism, citing the writing of Ibram X. Kendi and others suggesting that a true anti-racist posture would also necessarily be anti-capitalist. I wanted to know how literally to take that connection. Do you think of school administrators and principals as hoping to bring about a collapse of capitalism, or do you see them as largely unwitting actors in this process?
Rufo: Yes, with some exceptions, school principals and corporate HR directors do not want to usher in the end of capitalism. But the key intellectual architects of critical theory and its derivative, critical race theory, absolutely want to destroy capitalism and usher in a collectivist society. This isn’t a secret. Read Herbert Marcuse, read Paolo Freire, read Angela Davis. They originated all of the buzzwords that you find in today’s schools and corporations: institutional racism, systemic inequality, prison abolition, pedagogy of the oppressed, antiracism. It’s all there by the late 1960s. And when you read the work of today’s critical race theorists and their allies in American institutions, it’s the same ideas, but passed through a language-softening machine: they drop the revolutionary edge and rebrand them as “diversity and inclusion,” “racial equity,” and “culturally responsive teaching.” But the core of the theory is still intact. Ibram Kendi, for example, is a totalitarian; he wrote a piece in Politico that advocated for a near-omnipotent “antiracist” bureaucracy that has the power to abolish any law and silence speech that is not deemed “antiracist” by his panel of experts. He says explicitly that in order to abolish racism, you must abolish capitalism. This isn’t “racial sensitivity training.”
If you understand this historical and theoretical context, you understand that the school principals and the corporate HR directors are functioning as “useful idiots.” They are softening the ground for more aggressive political action in the future. This is by design. Today, we are adopting all of these policies that will be self-fulfilling failures. There is no evidence that scrapping standardized testing or engaging in state-sanctioned racial discrimination leads to better outcomes. This will lead to one of two outcomes: either the institutions will learn this lesson and abandon the critical theory approach; or they’ll double-down on the failure, because at the surface level, within the ideology, more intervention is always justified.
My hope—and the focus of my work—is to move our institutions towards the former outcome and encourage them to abandon this fatalistic ideology before it does serious damage to our country.