Conservative media outlets around the country cannot stop talking about critical race theory (CRT). According to Media Matters, Fox News has mentioned CRT nearly two thousand times in the past three and a half months. As journalists around the country have been trying to make sense of this phenomenon, they seem to trace back to one man: Christopher Rufo.
It is easy to fall into the simplistic trap of painting Rufo as the man behind it all (Rufo has even described himself as engaged in a “one-man war against critical race theory”). But the right-wing propaganda network has been producing people like Rufo for decades. Former director of the Center on Wealth & Poverty at the Discovery Institute, Rufo has also worked for the Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute. He is currently a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Rufo’s public crusade against CRT began in July of last year when the New York Post published an opinion piece he authored, opening with the dramatic assertion that CRT “is coursing through the federal government’s veins.” More specifically, Rufo reported that the federal government had bankrolled a man named Howard Ross to conduct CRT-based trainings for “white employees at the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Credit Union Administration and the Office of the Controller.”
The Post is not exactly known for its journalistic integrity (or lack thereof). Still, it is striking that Rufo neglects to provide a hyperlink to his “whistleblower documents,” forcing the reader to suspend judgment or take Rufo’s word about their contents; the latter epistemic attitude is surely the default for many if not most of Rufo’s target audience. As this blog post will repeatedly demonstrate, however, such an attitude is extremely dangerous when applied to Rufo’s work.
Here is Rufo, writing for the Post:
According to a trove of whistleblower documents I’ve reviewed, the training begins with the premise that “virtually all white people contribute to racism” and hold narratives that “don’t support the dismantling of racist institutions.” Therefore, the trainers argue, white federal employees must “struggle to own their racism” and “invest in race-based growth.”
The whistleblower documents tell a very different story. Arguably the most important detail obscured by Rufo’s portrayal is that the so-called “obscene federal ‘diversity training’” was, in Ross’s words, “neither mandatory nor a training.” Entitled “Beyond Words: Race, Work, and Allyship amid the George Floyd Tragedy,” it was a virtual event, a webinar geared toward people who were interested in learning more about how to create a more inclusive work environment.
What Rufo refers to as a “trove of whistleblower documents” is a booklet assembled by Ross’s Udarta Consulting LLC, entitled “Navigation Guide for Difficult Conversations about Race in Troubling Times.” A scan of the first several pages suffices to show that the webinar Rufo calls a “training” absolutely does not “[begin] with the premise that ‘virtually all white people contribute to racism.’” Rather, the “whistleblower documents” begin by highlighting the importance of sincere dialogue on racial issues and providing articulating some keys to successful group discussion on touchy topics—establishing ground rules and expectations, preparing for deep disagreements, encouraging open-minded and charitable engagement, and so on.
We are left wondering where Rufo has gotten the claims that “virtually all white people contribute to racism” and “[they] don’t support the dismantling of racist institutions.” After several searches, I couldn’t find the latter claim anywhere in the booklet; Rufo may well have created it out of thin air. The premise that “virtually all white people contribute to racism” (which Rufo also evokes more cynically, claiming the Treasury Department explicitly tells its employees that “all white people are racist”) does indeed appear in the booklet—but only as attributed to White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo in a talk which the booklet lists as a resource for further discussion of concepts like systemic racism and White privilege.
Observing these inconsistencies led journalist Caitlin Dickson to reach out to Rufo for clarification. He was less compliant than one might have hoped:
Yahoo News sent Rufo a detailed list of questions and requests for comment on specific details of this story, to which he responded via email: “I am shocked to discover that Yahoo News is still a website.”
However, Dickson was able to get ahold of Ross, who agreed to be interviewed for her report.
Ross said that Rufo appears to have selected “a handful of sentences” from that handbook “and posted them as the content of the training.” Rufo declined to comment or respond to questions presented by Yahoo News regarding the apparent inaccuracies in his description of this event, including why he chose to highlight Ross’s race.
Beyond Rufo’s mischaracterization of this particular event, which Ross said resulted in “quite a bit of hate mail” (most of it anti-Semitic), Ross insisted that the “bigger issue” is the way Rufo, and now the White House, have generally mischaracterized diversity training, “which is a huge body of work that's been going on for 40 years,” as “somehow about tearing down white men or tearing down America.”
This messaging is a crucial feature of Rufo’s content: CRT is anti-American and anti-white, and it’s being pedaled with your taxes! The very same day his New York Post op-ed was published, he appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News, where he gave the following characterization of the conceptual underpinnings of the Treasury’s “training”:
The argument is that all white people can be reduced to their essence, which is this kind of irreducible core of “whiteness,” [which is] a synonym for “evil,” “oppression,” “supremacy”—everything that’s wrong in the world.
So, to briefly recap: Rufo’s first successful effort at CRT fearmongering was nothing more than a gross exaggeration of some of the most mild material one can find in the diversity training universe; in fact, the content he caricatured as an essentialist anti-white indoctrination session imposed upon federal employees by totalitarian bureaucrats was, in reality, a completely optional webinar put together in order to start a dialogue about racial sensitivity in the workplace among interested parties.
Rufo was far from finished. His next target was a training program attended by executives of Sandia National Laboratories:
I’ve obtained exclusive whistleblower documents revealing that last year, the national laboratory sent its white male executives to the La Posada luxury resort to undergo a mandatory training called “White Men’s Caucus on Eliminating Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in Organizations.”
The misrepresentations begin immediately, as Rufo tries to paint the trainers as responsible for associating “white male culture” with the KKK and MAGA hats, despite the fact that the material he links in his “whistleblower documents” explicitly states that the associations were “generated by participants”—that is, generated by the Sandia employees.
Rufo does this again when analyzing “privilege statements”—statements the Sandia employees themselves compiled as examples of the ways in which they believe our society affords certain conveniences or opportunities to white people and to men but not others. As Rufo frames it, however, the list of claims are forced upon the employees; they “must publicly recite” such statements and “accept their complicity in the white male system and their role in creating oppressions”—despite the fact that such charges toward white males are conspicuously absent from the documents.
Rufo wraps up his analysis by framing the Sandia employees’ personal reflection letters as forced apologies to women and people of color:
It’s interesting to see what Rufo leaves out of his Twitter thread. For instance, this employee described the white male Caucus experience as “a tremendous opportunity to have an emotional and intellectual understanding of the [diversity and inclusion] area.”
Another employee describes how the retreat has made him more empathetic and given him a better understanding of how privilege operates:
Here is another positive assessment, praising the Caucus as a teaching tool:
Here is the uncropped version of one of the assessments Rufo links; it is telling that Rufo crops out the positive evaluation that “the Caucus can make you a more effective partner with others, regardless of their background.”
Another employee reports that the Caucus has helped him “feel more enabled to support and have a stronger sense of responsibility to do so.”
Yet another glowingly describes his “eye-opening experience”:
These sincere expressions of gratitude for the experience of the retreat are impossible to square with Rufo’s description of it, according to which the employees are “[forced] to write letters of apology to women and people of color,” which is obviously not the case. In Rufo’s limited framing, we are led to believe that these men were humiliated, forced into writing appeasing comments, perhaps out of fear of losing their job. Thankfully, Rufo didn’t doctor the original files of whistleblower documents, which paints an entirely different picture, hardly describable as an evil reeducation camp. Thus we can see right through Rufo’s conclusion that “critical race theory is now endangering our national security.” In fact, Bill Proudman—a founder of the firm responsible for orchestrating the retreat—told Yahoo News he had never even heard of CRT.
In spite of (or rather because of) his extreme dishonesty, Rufo’s efforts were more than enough to make a splash. On September 22, 2020, President Trump issued an executive order banning these “divisive concepts” from federal workplaces, explicitly citing the examples Rufo distorted into indoctrination trainings and reeducation camps, arguing that CRT
is now migrating from the fringes of American society and threatens to infect core institutions of our country. Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors. For example, the Department of the Treasury recently held a seminar that promoted arguments that “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism,” and that instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid “narratives” that Americans should “be more color-blind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”
Materials from Sandia National Laboratories, also a Federal entity, for non-minority males stated that an emphasis on “rationality over emotionality” was a characteristic of “white male[s],” and asked those present to “acknowledge” their “privilege” to each other.
This move was an extension of the speech Trump gave at the National Archives the previous week, where he parroted Rufo:
Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children's schools, it's being imposed into workplace trainings, and it's being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families. A perfect example of critical race theory was recently published by the Smithsonian Institution. This document alleged that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, and the nuclear family and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans but instead aspects of whiteness… [CRT] is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.
Trump went on to call the teaching of CRT in schools “child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”
Rufo’s second wave of anti-CRT coverage was just as empty as his first.
This December 2020 article claims to have discovered a hateful anti-White training program forced upon Seattle public school teachers:
The central message is that white teachers must recognize that they “are assigned considerable power and privilege in our society” because of their “possession of white skin.” Consequently, to atone for their collective guilt, white teachers must be willing to reject their “whiteness”… any negative emotional reaction to being denounced for “whiteness” is an automatic response from the white teachers’ “lizard-brain,” which makes them “afraid that [they] will have to talk about sensitive issues such as race, racism, classism, sexism, or any kind of ‘ism.’”
In fact, the slideshow’s content does not focus particularly on what White teachers owe their students, nor does it charge them with collective guilt. And the only mention of “whiteness” in the material comes in the observation that “the centrality of whiteness and the possession of white skin are assigned considerable power and privilege in our society,” followed by the classic Uncle Ben rejoinder: With great power comes great responsibility. But this responsibility never amounts to a denunciation or abolition of whiteness, so his out-of-context, disparaging use of the “lizard-brain” remark—which was stated without reference to White people or any particular racial group—is pure invective. It serves one purpose alone, Rufo’s only purpose: to inspire fear of the CRT boogeyman. The ultimate end is always conservative political hegemony; the means, in this case and most others, is stoking White resentment.
In the month that followed, Rufo penned two blatantly deceiving articles on San Diego schools. The first, “The Whitest Privilege,” opens thus:
San Diego Unified School District is forcing teachers to attend “white privilege” training, in which teachers are told “you are racist” and “you are upholding racist ideas, structures, and policies.”
This is misleading at best. Here are the slides Rufo is referring to:
The trainers are not accusing SDUSD teachers of anything; they are stimulating conversations based on hypothetical scenarios in which such accusations occur. This is incredibly obvious to anyone who takes the time to look at these slides.
Rufo’s next piece on SDUSD began with a similarly distorted recap of the training just discussed, after which he launched into another rant:
According to new whistleblower documents, San Diego Unified held an even more radical training program featuring a speaker who believes American schools are guilty of the “spirit murdering of Black children.”
When I first read this, my initial reaction to the expression “spirit murdering” was to regard it as somewhat cringeworthy. Then I saw the examples on display.
Such cases were undoubtedly traumatic, and “spirit murdering” seems descriptively apt. But of course Rufo has to sensationalize this in the subheading of his piece, as he writes that “San Diego’s school district tells white teachers that they are guilty of ‘spirit murdering’ black children.” Once again we have a proclamation completely unsupported by the “whistleblower documents”—Rufo’s sole source of evidence.
There is at least one significant distortion in virtually every single one of the essays Rufo has contributed to City Journal on the topic of CRT in K-12 education, errors ranging from irresponsible to downright defamatory. He baselessly claimed that a Cupertino teacher “forced a class of third-graders” to “rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege’”; that “[a] Philadelphia elementary school recently forced fifth-grade students to celebrate ‘black communism’”; that “Buffalo Public Schools teaches [sic] students that ‘all white people’ perpetuate systemic racism and forces [sic] kindergarteners to watch a video of dead black children warning them about ‘racist police and state-sanctioned violence’ who might kill them at any time”—a claim Rufo appears to think he has adequately supported in an article which is rather unique in that Rufo fails to provide any “whistleblower documents” to at least give the reader the impression of commitment to basic journalistic ethical standards, linking instead to a Fox News article and accompanying clip from Tucker Carlson. “California’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum urges students to chant to the Aztec deity of human sacrifice,” Rufo writes in another article entirely devoid of references.
In the final installment of his eleven-part series on CRT in K-12 education, “Merchants in Revolution,” Rufo’s only citations are other City Journal essays which do not provide any actual evidence for his bold accusations against the Santa Clara County Office of Education, all of which are predicated upon the classic right-wing trope of Red Scare demagoguery; the subheading of the piece reports “California’s ethnic studies initiatives train children in Marxist theory—and opposition to the American system.” His charges—again, charges for which he provides no evidence—are extreme:
The leaders, including district staff, an advisor for the state Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, and a professor from San Jose State University, encouraged teachers to inject left-wing politics into the classroom and to hide controversial materials from parents.
Rufo claims that Jorge Pacheco, president of the California Latino School Boards Association and advisor for the state Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum,
argue[d] that teachers must “awaken [students] to the oppression” and lead them to “decodify” and eventually “destroy” the dominant political regime… Pacheco argued that schools should start transforming children into “activist intellectuals,” beginning in first grade. “[It’s] never too young,” he said, arguing that educators should be “cashing in on kids’ inherent empathy” in order to reshape their ideological foundations.
Where did Rufo get this information, and why doesn’t he provide evidence of it? Why is this not a matter of deep concern for those who go to him for information about CRT in our educational institutions?
A holistic assessment of his investigative journalism reveals that Rufo just doesn’t see anything wrong with making strong, sweeping claims without a shred of evidence. In “‘Antiracism’ Comes to the Heartland,” after describing an alleged diversity training program for teachers at Cherokee Middle School in Missouri, Rufo presents an anecdote I can’t help but believe is a total fabrication:
Finally, after more than an hour of training, one white teacher, who was raised by a black stepfather, began pushing back, asking: “Is the district saying that we should be Marxists?”
He continued: “While I don’t think there’s a person in the room who doesn’t agree that this is an important topic that should be dealt with, the way that it’s being framed comes from Herbert Marcuse who took and stripped all of the economic policies of Marxist theory and turned it into [cultural Marxism]. . . . I grew up the son of a black man, he raised me to believe in Dr. King’s teachings. Dr. King did not teach the kind of vitriol that we see out of Marxism, [which] has a long replete history of countries being bigoted and prejudiced against others and then murdering millions as a result.”
All of this with what evidence? The complete set of “whistleblower documents” Rufo provides for this article: three handouts, entitled “Oppression Matrix,” “Land Acknowledgement,” and “White Supremacy.” Rufo seems to think his reader ought to take him at his word that a Missouri middle school teacher articulated this objection based on his familiarity with Marcuse, someone present remembered it accurately, and communicated this episode accurately as reported. I just don’t buy it.
This post is getting quite long. I’ll have to tackle Rufo’s attempt at defining CRT in a Part II. But allow me to conclude by framing Rufo’s work in a way I find rather helpful, drawing on the classic paper by the late philosopher Harry Frankfurt, “On Bullshit.”
Frankfurt distinguishes bullshit from lying by distinguishing the liar’s aims from those of the bullshitter:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he consider his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Consider the following admissions from Rufo regarding what the label “CRT” is for:
Charlie Sykes @SykesCharlieChristopher Rufo has become one of the go-to critics of Critical Race Theory. Here he is... essentially giving away the game. For Rufo, it is all about “branding,’ and the audacity of his charlatanry is breathtaking: https://t.co/uAxNc91pCZ https://t.co/INn9tYdgHM
Whether CRT is actually present wherever Rufo says it is does not matter to him in the slightest. It’s not about integrity; telling the truth is for suckers. What matters, fundamentally, is winning. Thus Rufo isn’t required to actually know what CRT is at all, nor is he required to give a damn when others correctly call him out for lacking a basic understanding of it. Truth is no end in itself; the only aim is political power.
One of Frankfurt’s poignant insights: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” And just as we said of James Lindsay, Chris Rufo doesn’t know shit about CRT. But Rufo is a black belt in bullshit artistry, whereas Lindsay tends to play the role of the liar more often. Rufo may therefore represent a more pernicious threat. As Frankfurt acknowledges:
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.