Education Reform

The Man Who Turned “Critical Race Theory” into a Red-Hot Political Issue

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Christopher Rufo was a successful documentary maker, some of whose shows were broadcast on PBS. He moved to Seattle and his politics moved rightward.

The New Yorker wrote about his rise as a star of conservative politics. An employee of the Seattle city government sent him slides about anti-bias training that started Rufo on a crusade to expose the bias in anti-bias programs.

…in July, 2020, when an employee of the city of Seattle documented an anti-bias training session and sent the evidence to a journalist named Christopher F. Rufo, who read it and recognized a political opportunity.

Rufo, thirty-six, was at once an unconventional and a savvy choice for the leaker to select. Raised by Italian immigrants in Sacramento and educated at Georgetown, Rufo had spent his twenties and early thirties working as a documentary filmmaker, largely overseas, making touristic projects such as “Roughing It: Mongolia,” and “Diamond in the Dunes,” about a joint Uyghur-Han baseball team in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. In 2015, Rufo began work on a film for PBS that traced the experience of poverty in three American cities, and in the course of filming Rufo became convinced that poverty was not something that could be alleviated with a policy lever but was deeply embedded in “social, familial, even psychological” dynamics, and his politics became more explicitly conservative. Returning home to Seattle, where his wife worked for Microsoft, Rufo got a small grant from a regional, conservative think tank to report on homelessness, and then ran an unsuccessful campaign for city council, in 2018. His work so outraged Seattle’s homelessness activists that, during his election campaign, someone plastered his photo and home address on utility poles around his neighborhood. When Rufo received the anti-bias documents from the city of Seattle, he knew how to spot political kindling. These days, “I’m a brawler,” Rufo told me cheerfully.

Rufo has since received many other leaks and has now become the Republicans’ go-to expert on the dangers of anti-bias and anti-racism programs, critical race theory, and The 1619 Project.

The Washington Post wrote this about him:

President Donald Trump was watching Fox News one evening last summer when a young conservative from Seattle appeared with an alarming warning, and a call to action.

Christopher Rufo said critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that most people had never heard of, had “pervaded every institution in the federal government.”

“Critical race theory,” Rufo said, “has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.”

Critical race theory holds that racism is systemic in the United States, not just a collection of individual prejudices — an idea that feels obvious to some and offensive to others. Rufo alleged that efforts to inject awareness of systemic racism and White privilege, which grew more popular following the murder of George Floyd by police, posed a grave threat to the nation. It amounts, Rufo said, to a “cult indoctrination.”

Spurred by Rufo, this complaint has come to dominate conservative politics. Debates over critical race theory are raging on school boards and in state legislatures. Fox News has increased its coverage and commentary on the issue. And Republicans see the issue as a central element of the case they will make to voters in next year’s midterm elections, when control of Congress will be at stake.

These issues will be central to the GOP campaign in 2022. Republicans have seized on it as the way to win because they are defending whiteness, tradition, and white identity by making debates about race a threatening presence against which children and adults must be protected.

“Critical race theory” has been debated in academic circles for at least three decades. But now politicians are using it as a cultural wedge issue to attack diversity training and to ban anything in the schools that focuses on the untold story of black history. Nearly half the states have banned “critical race theory” (although it is doubtful that any of the legislators have ever read the works of Derrick Bell or Kimberlee Crenshaw. Many are also banning The 1619 Project, which they see as a fundamental part of critical race theory. Above all, they don’t want whites to feel guilty about slavery, Jim Crow, racial violence, or the KKK.

This question of historical guilt is thorny. None of us wants to be held accountable for what we did not do. But certainly we should be aware of the dark chapters in human history and the atrocities committed because of race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation. Not everyone has suffered equally, to be sure. But the lesson we must learn today is to learn from history about the cruelty of the past and the importance of treating every human being with respect and dignity.

Teachers are rightly confused and concerned about what and whether they may teach black history.

My view: Teach the facts, teach the conflicts, teach about the dangers of bigotry and hatred. Debate, discuss, and review multiple perspectives.

The ultimate goal of education must be to teach fairness, kindness, character, integrity, and empathy. Teach about the outstanding women and men who have stood for justice regardless of social pressures and stigma. In our history and in all human history, there have been leaders whose courage and conduct defied convention.

Let us teach the world as it was and as we want it to be. We must not allow demagogues, hucksters, ignoramuses, bigots, and politicians to censor what we think, what we read, what we teach, what we learn, what we believe.

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