Meet Christopher Rufo — leader of the incoherent right-wing attack on "critical race theory"

Meet the Trump fan and Heritage Foundation stooge leading the racist, red-baiting assault on American education

Published August 1, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Signs are seen on a bench during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Signs are seen on a bench during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The attacks on "critical race theory" over these last nine months have sought to silence any critical focus on racism today, on structures, institutions, systems, acts and people deemed racist, and to reshape historical memory regarding race to this end.

Christopher Rufo has become the poster boy for these attacks, their driving force. He wasn't the only one, or even the initially intended operative to lead the charge. The Heritage Foundation promoted the initiative, with numerous of its agents — or agents provocateurs — assuming the task. Jonathan Butcher and Mike Gonzalez were the other two designated with Rufo for the work. Gonzalez published a book, "The Plot to Change America," targeting identity politics, centering terms Rufo would later mobilize to attack CRT. 

Heritage fashioned a twin state-focused political strategy designed to support the conservative resurrection and return to power: the broadside against progressive anti-racism, and the neutral-looking campaign to limit access to voting by people of color, the poor and youth. The work to restrict voting has been led, more quietly, by Heritage Action (a Heritage spinoff in 2010), which has developed a template for state voting restrictions, helping to write the proliferating state legislation. 

Butcher, Gonzalez and Rufo published hit pieces on the Heritage website and elsewhere, such as Manhattan Institute's City Journal. None is trained as a lawyer, or indeed in any field specializing in studies of race. To their credit, they have picked up CRT along the way, the untrained eyes seeing what the trained one has not (intended), reconfirming the sighted UFO in consultation with each other. 

Rufo has gained the most traction in going after CRT. He took it on as his crusade. Acting as the crusade's voice is now his full-time employment, perhaps even — like a typecast Hollywood actor — his employability. While claiming that "CRT is everywhere," he is the one who actually is on Fox News repeatedly, where Donald Trump saw him interviewed last November and immediately gave Rufo a national platform. (From March onwards, Fox News has mentioned CRT nearly 2,000 times, 700 of those in June alone.) Rufo is the Trumpeter of anti-anti-racist agitation. So much so that his Twitter handle is @realchrisrufo — a close echo of the former president's former Twitter handle — his platform also for fundraising. 

In taking on the Trumpian mantle, make-believe is the name of the game. And, as with the notorious propagandists from which he clearly has drawn influence, fabrication is at the heart of Rufo's real crusade. He has been well-prepared, having worked previously at the Discovery Institute, best known for its creationist and anti-evolution science denial.

What, then, has RealChrisRufo (RCR) "seen"? There are many sites and sightings from which to draw. So it is best to hew closely to RCR's own definitive statements on CRT, summarized in an 18-minute YouTube video he produced and in which he serves as the driving voice. It is effective agitprop, superficially slick, quick in claim and pace. His talking head is intercut with found images and computational graphics. But Rufo's public façade of earnest sincerity is belied by his extraordinary intellectual dishonesty. The video is aimed at framing CRT in completely misleading historical, intellectual and political terms. It dramatically overgeneralizes, operating through innuendo and mischaracterization. It is as revealing in what is omitted as stated. He engages in diverting decontextualization and complete misrepresentation.  

"CRT," Rufo declares at the outset, is "the new orthodoxy in America's public institutions." Really? Only because he says so and is mimicked loudly by his followers in the media and at school board meetings, finding it under every rock. Walking into schools, onto campuses, you'd search in vain turning up CRT anywhere other than in specialist college classes. That the embarrassing examples of CRT the critics identify are invariably traceable only to their proclamation should give pause about their authenticity and plausibility.

If "Most Americans have no idea where [CRT] comes from or the society it envisions," it is left to Rufo to show us that it is around every corner, "why it is a threat to the country, and most importantly show [us] how you can fight it." Believing, it turns out, is "seeing."

CRT, in the Rufoist reading, began as an attempt to update Marxism. It supposedly inherited its structure of thinking from the "neo-Marxists" of critical theory — he identifies Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin. Realizing in the 1960s "the actual failures" of Marxist "brutality," RCR insists that "the critical theorists abandoned the old economic dialectic of bourgeois and proletariat and replaced it with a new racial dialectic of white and black."

There are three related embarrassments to this vision. First, the only driving influences on CRT apparently are white German Jewish men. No Black, brown, Asian or women intellectual forerunners, American or globally, nor any non-Jewish whites. This is 1950s American anti-communism redux. 

Second, Adorno, Horkheimer and Benjamin restricted to antisemitism what little discussion they devoted to racism. This is perhaps understandable, given their own experiences. Hannah Arendt is one notable exception here. 

Third, in "Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement," a reader collecting all the original seminal articles and edited by for of the intellectual movement's principal founders, there are almost 1,500 footnotes (law articles are notoriously well-documented). There is not a single reference to Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin or Marcuse. There are more references to Black conservative economist and political commentator Thomas Sowell and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey (one each) than to Karl Marx. The references in the volume are overwhelmingly to U.S. legal cases, followed by the long tradition of Black American thinkers. 

The obvious rejoinder will be that the "neo-Marxist" influence is implicit, known to the initiated; the unprovable parading as given. "Critical," however, etymologically means the capacity to judge the truth or merit of the object of analysis. Rufo-inspired CRT criticisms exhibit none of these qualities.

Rufo quickly broadens his target. CRT, he says, "is usually deployed under a series of euphemisms, such as equity, social justice, diversity and inclusion, and socially responsive teaching." There is an obvious political strategy at work here: Renew the longstanding conservative hysteria over Marxism and communism by misreading CRT as substitutes for its terms. The goal is to set fire to the contemporary shift in American politics regarding race and racism unfolding since the George Floyd murder and BLM-inspired protests over a year ago. 

This past March, @RealChrisRufo was explicit about this strategy of fabrication on Twitter (it's almost as if tweets are the medium of the political unconscious today). He later added, "I basically took that body of criticism ... and made it political. Turned it into a salient political issue with a clear villain."

The result is Campus Watch for schools, effectively Dinesh D'Souza 2.0 — a venomous brew. This is the lesson plan for the self-appointed thought police. While schools have been the principal targets, colleges and universities are now on the radar too. Critical Race Training in Education is a watchdog-style website recently established by Cornell law professor William A. Jacobson, with two younger activists, who together run the Legal Insurrection Foundation. Drawing calculatingly on the Rufoistic misreadings, they report on "more than 300 colleges and universities" nationwide for their training in CRT and antiracism (though courses in critical theory with no focus on racism are making the list too). The aim seems to warn "parents" away from sending their children to such institutions, including Jacobson's own, and by implication to pressure the institutions to restrict CRT-related courses. This is cancel culture with a vengeance.

Rufoists never engage in sustained textual analysis of CRT. They usually refer misleadingly to an idea or sentence from the far wider, much less coherent body of critical work in the human sciences that I shorthand as critical race studies.  The two most often dismissed by Rufoists are "critical race guru" Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who are about as different in critical commitments, assumptions and arguments as they could be. Kendi has repeatedly insisted he is no CRTer. He sometimes expresses ideas that CRT advocates would reject as unworkable or incoherent, just as some diversity training programs are embarrassingly counterproductive. But they are ideas for critical discussion, not incendiary devices to end the Republic. DiAngelo's discussion of "white fragility" is not a position readily identified with CRT. Her reading of structural racism offers countering proposals that rely on personal, individual responses, leaving the structural conditions untouched. She is definitively no Marxist, neo- or otherwise. 

All this matters to the Rufoists as much as schools insisting they do not teach CRT. CRT is now the operative target in almost exactly the ways "Marxism," "communism," "socialism" and "liberalism" have been in the past. The Goldwater Institute, for which Heritage's Butcher once worked, includes Howard Zinn's "A People's History of America" under its CRT catchphrase, a text among others to be banned from school curricula. Zinn's classic work was first published in 1980, before CRT was even named, or even a thing!

Rufo has also composed a CRT "Briefing Book," a handbook for cultural combat. It serves for anti-CRT combat much like Israel's Hasbara Handbook for Promoting Israel on Campus, the principal aim of which is "to influence public opinion." Indeed, a Rufoist offshoot organization, Citizens for Renewing America, offers "model schoolboard language to prohibit CRT" alongside a "toolkit" to "combat CRT in your community," much as Heritage Action provides model legislation to restrict state voting rights.

What, then, is "racial Rufoism"? It is a political strategy aiming to provide tools for whitewashing race and racism as the undiscussables of American politics, culture, education. It is a "redprint" for silencing any critical racial narrative. As American demography has become a lost conservative battle — within the next quarter-century the U.S., as California does already, will have no racial majority — the war has shifted. Who controls the levers of power? And who controls dominant cultural representation — here, the racial story that the country dominantly tells about itself? The fight over historical memory, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has aptly characterized the conservative attacks on the 1619 Project, is not just how to understand the American past. It seeks to establish the grounds for more or less full belonging to the society, the terms and conditions for being an American and staying ahead today.

Here a Tennessee school district experience exemplifies wider patterns across the country. A parent insisted that the account of Ruby Bridges, as the first Black student to integrate New Orleans schools in 1960, is hurtful to white schoolkids. Bridges' account describes a "large crowd of angry white people who didn't want Black children in a white school." The parent insisted it failed to offer "redemption" for today's white children. She also objected to another book about school segregation, expressing disapproval of teaching words like "injustice" and "inequality" in "grammar lessons." A clip of Ruby Bridges' chilling experience shows a six-year-old girl being screamed at by a crowd of angry white people spitting and cursing at her. No white redemption on offer here.

"Racial Rufoism" is obviously about denying structural or systemic racism, reducing racism solely to "individual bad apples." But it is even more about whitewashing race and racism, seeking to relieve white people today of any responsibility not just about the past — slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynchings — but equally for their inherited impact today. This is exemplified in the all too easy resort by Rufoists to the MLK exhortation to "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." One only has to read or hear the rest of King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech to know he offered this as aspirational. He embedded it within an insistence that its realization is dependent on first addressing the structural and systemic racism still shaping this country. Rufoism provides a way for beneficiaries of whiteness to abrogate any responsibility for expanding racial differentials in wealth, property values, employability, educational resources and access, health disparities and voting rights restrictions. Racial Rufoism provides racial deniability its fuel and rationalizing cover. 

We are seeing, nevertheless, the stirrings of a more assertive critical counter to Rufoism. Because of the non-whitewashed history students are being provided in the Tennessee school district mentioned above, "teachers are reporting ... that our students are reading like they've never read before." The assistant superintendent added, "I've received a flood of emails recently that said, 'Don't do anything with the curriculum. My kid's loving it'." 

Rufoist whitewashing is not just censorious, sloppy and misdirecting. It may make for effective propaganda in the homogeneous circles in which it circulates, but it amounts to boring, unappealing, tuned-out pedagogy in schools and colleges alike. Rufoism is critical only in that other, fast failing sense. The Rufoists see a future that for all but themselves — and perhaps even for themselves — is no future at all.

By David Theo Goldberg

David Theo Goldberg is director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute and a distinguished professor of comparative literature, anthropology, and criminology, law and society at UC Irvine. Goldberg’s work ranges over issues of social, political and critical theory, race and racism, the future of the university and digital technology. He has written extensively on race and racism. His books include "Are We All Postracial Yet?" (2015) and, most recently, "Dread: Facing Futureless Futures" (July 2021).

MORE FROM David Theo Goldberg