Christopher Rufo joins Seth Barron to discuss his reporting on federal agencies using “critical race theory” as part of their personnel-training programs and President Trump’s decision to issue an executive order prohibiting it.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Seth Barron, Associate Editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is a friend of the podcast, Christopher Rufo. Chris is a documentary filmmaker based in Seattle. He's the Director of the Discovery Institute's Center on Wealth and Poverty and a City Journal contributing editor. You can find him on Twitter @realchrisrufo.
Chris has been busy uncovering a major scandal. This time inside the country's federal government, where the ideology known as critical race theory has made inroads. We're excited to have him on the podcast to talk about it. Chris, thanks for joining us.
Chris Rufo: It's great to be with you.
Seth Barron: So, what is critical race theory?
Chris Rufo: Critical race theory is the idea that the United States was a country founded on racism and that American institutions, such as the constitution, our legal system, and our social order preaches the values on the surface of equality and freedom but, under the surface, those are simply a mask for white supremacy and racial oppression. And it's, basically, a kind of Marxian dynamic of oppressor and oppressed, but rather than a economic base of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it's now taken on the identity politics theory, looking at oppression dynamics through the lens of race.
Seth Barron: I feel like we've been hearing a lot about this sort of thing. For instance, The New York Times had their 1619 Project. Is that a version of critical race theory?
Chris Rufo: It is, yeah. I think the 1619 project is really a historical expression of critical race theories, philosophical foundations. And famously or infamously, depending on which side you're on 1619 Projects, basically, says the country was not founded in 1776 with the declaration of independence, and the liberal social order, equality under the law, all men are created equal. But, in fact, it was founded in 1619 with the arrival of the first slaves. And, obviously, slavery was a horrific institution. It has marked American history. But this is really not an attempt to expose the evils of slavery, which I think everyone agrees on, but an attempt to refound the country away from the American ideals and principles of equality and freedom, and replace them with the kind of historical practice of slavery and oppression, which they argue continues to this day.
Seth Barron: Oh, I see. Well, I mean, it's fine to make a fuss about this, but critical race theory, it's pretty marginal, right? I mean, isn't this just something you hear in like, I don't know, Oberlin seminars? I mean, who's, actually, worrying about this?
Chris Rufo: Yeah, you'd think so. I mean, historically, if you look at a critical theory in general, and then critical race theory in particular, it's something that has really been bandying about the academic community since the 1960s and '70s, and was really relegated to the academic and intellectual margins until quite recently. And in the last 5, 10 years, it's really exploded. It's jumped out of the laboratory of academia, and now spread as the dominant ideology in, honestly, many, if not most of our public institutions. The critical race theory narrative and the historical narrative of 1619 Project, and the correlations from there are now embedded in the academic K through 12 curriculum in many school districts around the country.
And what I've been doing is working on investigative reporting, showing how critical race theory is now the foundational operating ideology of the federal government, and their HR and diversity training programs. And-
Seth Barron: Hold on a minute, the federal government is run by Donald Trump who doesn't seem ... I mean, he's very in favor of the traditional American narrative. So, you're telling me that hiring under him is done according to this rubric?
Chris Rufo: Yeah, it's not so much hiring. There may be an element of that. But it's really about what I think is very clear in the documents that I've uncovered a kind of ideological indoctrination. And I don't use those terms lightly. But what I've seen is that federal departments, again, released whistleblower documents and investigative reporting on this, are now trying to basically take the academic ideas of critical race theory and transform them into a kind of HR department program where in one case at the Sandia National Nuclear Laboratories, they were taking white male executives on a three-day session, teaching them how to deconstruct their white male culture, essentially denounce their group identity. And then work to achieve this progressive penance all on taxpayer dime.
Or the Treasury Department and the federal financial agencies have had speakers who explicitly endorsed the 1619 historical narrative. They denounced the United States as an oppressive nation based on white supremacy. And then, they offered materials teaching employees how to essentially root out vestiges of internalized racism, and false consciousness, and join this political and ideological movement of, what they call, anti-racism through, in some cases, racially segregated training sessions and in others training sessions, where people are being, essentially, singled out, and denounced on their group identity.
Seth Barron: Well, I mean, I suppose it doesn't sound good to have segregated anything. But what's wrong with anti-racism and trying to get people to recognize their racism and overcome it?
Chris Rufo: Well, I think it's not predicated on the idea of finding people, who are actual racists and correcting their behavior. I think we could all agree that that's good. If someone is doing something that is racially discriminatory, or a kind of race-based harassment we should stop that kind of behavior. But critical race theory goes a step deeper. And the documents in federal agencies reveal this, that they assume that by definition, all white people have internalized white supremacy. They've internalized racism. And they've internalized, what they call, the essence of whiteness that is to be cast out.
And it's very different from saying, "Hey, we should stop racist behavior in the workplace, harassment in the workplace. And the idea that by the nature and circumstances of your birth you are, by definition, an irredeemable racist, which I think is counter to, certainly, my experience, having met many people over the years from all different backgrounds. And also counter to the founding idea of equal protection under the law and the presumption of innocence. And I think that it is extremely toxic and destructive.
And from my reporting, talking with people who've undergone these trainings they say, in some cases, "We had a great team of people. We all got along great, despite different backgrounds. And after these kinds of training sessions were thrust upon the organization we've seen nothing but problems, division, toxic work environments, harassment, and a degradation. A degraded capacity of the actual work that we're supposed to be doing."
Seth Barron: So, what happens in these segregated sessions? Like at the laboratory, you said that the white male executives were told to get together, and sort of denounce themselves. But what specifically, what kind of exercises do they run through? Did you learn anything about that?
Chris Rufo: Yeah, absolutely. So, I'll use a couple of different case studies to illustrate from a couple different federal agencies. But it all starts with saying, the assumption that people can be reduced to a racial essence. There's this magical essence of whiteness. There's a magical essence of blackness. It can't be measured scientifically, but it's really the assumption. And whiteness, in particular, is singled out as something that is inherently kind of racist, destructive, and evil in some cases they're saying.
And so, what they do is they first say, "You are, by definition, guilty of whiteness and white supremacy." So, let's explore what that means. And in the case of the Sandia National Nuclear Laboratories they actually had participants write suggestions for what they thought of as white male culture. And the instructors wrote down white supremacist, KKK, Aryan nation, MAGA hat, mass killings. All of these horrific stereotypes that, I mean certainly there are people that are Klan members, et cetera, but I would be willing to wager a bet that the executives of our National Nuclear Laboratories were not any of these things.
And then, once you've established the race and group-based guilt, then you do the hard work of deconstructing it. Another word they use is interrupting it. And internalizing this guilt and responsibility. And then, signing up for their political and ideological program that offers not salvation, because they claim that you will always be a racist, but they offer a kind of suspension of guilt, as long as you are aligned with their ideological programming.
And the writer, James Lindsay has done some great work where he actually goes through kind of textbook cult programming. And how do cults emerge, what techniques do they use to induct people, and how did they maintain control over the social organism? And these race theory training sessions, as we've talked about it, follow almost to a tee those same platforms and progressions. And I think it's something that goes without saying, it has no place in any workplace. And, certainly, it has no place in a workplace that is funded by taxpayers.
Seth Barron: So, what happens if somebody resists the training, or just says, "Well, I know that I'm not a racist," is that considered an acceptable response? Can you opt out of this on that basis?
Chris Rufo: That's a great question because it is the actual kind of rhetorical and manipulative genius of critical race theory. I think of critical race theory specifically about kind of objections to it as an ingenious mouse trap. And what they've done is that they've kind of have a pre-packaged set of answers, just like any cult organization would do. Where if you disagree with them, it's just taken as another proof point that they're actually right. So, in this example, if you're saying, "Hey, look, I'm a white employee at a federal agency. I don't believe in these theories. I don't think that all white people inherently have internalized racial oppression dynamics. I don't think that I personally am a racist," what they'll do is they'll say, "Well, actually, that's just your internalized white supremacy speaking. That's your white fragility speaking. That's your white privilege speaking. And actually just the fact that you're resisting of this shows that you are actually at the forefront of the problem. And we need to break down those ideas, break down your identity. And bring you into this magical world where we can solve these social problems."
So, they don't accept descent. Embedded in their argument is this mechanism that turns descent into an admission of guilt. It's dishonest, it's manipulative. But, unfortunately, it's very effective. And most people that I've talked to are too scared to speak out because they're scared of the consequences.
Seth Barron: So, in a way it doesn't really sound like it's ... I mean, my understanding of the scientific method and scientific theory is that a theory has to be falsifiable. But this sounds like it's unfalsifiable. So, it's not really a theory in the sense that most people would think of it. What about in schools? You said that this is also happening in the K through 12 curricula. Can you elaborate on that?
Chris Rufo: It is. And this is something that is a deep concern for a lot of parents I've talked to in the last few months. The school curriculum that is decided in a decentralized way by school boards, and school teachers and organizations, it has really adopted a lot of these theories where they're teaching the 1619 Project as a kind of historical example. They're teaching the concepts and ideas of critical race theory, as far as the social studies, or social science curriculum. And then, teachers are being trained in mass to adopt this ideology and then to transmit this ideology.
And one thing that has been really fascinating in the last couple of months, as kids have gone back to school on Zoom, is that parents are starting to have an inside window into exactly what their kids are learning. And there've been some unbelievable videos being disseminated in the media of parents who are essentially horrified. They're saying, "Wow, I walked in and I saw this teacher teaching these outrageous critical race theory inspired lessons." And then, they post them on Twitter and they explode because I think for the first time there's both the widespread adoption of critical race theory, or CRT, in the curricula. But also the visibility because of this bizarre moment of pandemic induced distance learning. And I think that that is a big story. It maybe is the biggest story that's happening right now. And it's attracting both its partisans and its detractors.
Seth Barron: Well, I guess it's not that surprising that bureaucrats and the federal government, and [edu-crats 00:15:20] in the various school districts would have embraced this. But at least we know that good old fashioned American capitalism, that American corporations are never going to embrace this radical philosophy, am I right in saying that?
Chris Rufo: No, you're wrong in saying that, unfortunately. Kind of bizarrely, American corporations have been very fast to adopt this, very fast to embrace it, to teach it in their own HR programs. And then, to subsidize it through both hiring for-profit diversity consultants that push this. Or actually outright giving kind of charitable gifts to the organizations that are creating these frameworks, and perpetuating these ideas. And it's a really interesting moment where corporations, I think, from their own internal point of view, have the best of both worlds. They have a kind of libertarian economic landscape where corporations are very profitable. They have quite low tax rates. The regulatory burden is manageable for these largest corporations. And then, they feel at liberty to then signal to the libertarian left on social issues where they're saying, "Yeah, we support the Black Lives Matter organization. We support critical race theory programs. We support the internal HR policies that dovetail with these theories."
And it's kind of a strange thing, but I think they're feeling like it's not worth the risk to push back against them socially. And they've already secured their economic status and their economic policies that they want. So, there's really no benefit for them to moderate their positions, to appease, maybe let's say the social conservative, or the cultural right. So, consequently, you have this funny environment where corporations are supporting the very left social policies and social practices, and then supporting and benefiting from the very right and very right libertarian economic policies and practices.
Seth Barron: Well, so where does this leave everybody else? I mean, if you're just a normal person, you like the American way, you like the colorblind rule of law, what do we do? Where do we go?
Chris Rufo: I think that the issue is that there's a kind of elite consensus that is socially progressive, and economically libertarian that is actually probably the least popular quadrant, as far as the American political center. The largest majority of Americans, according to some of the social science data that I've seen, are economically liberal and socially conservative. And yet, they're really not represented very well almost anywhere. So, we have a separation between mainstream American culture, and the actual views and preferences of the largest block of American citizens that is separated from both the elite left and the elite right discourse.
And I think this is going to be a really interesting political dynamic in the months and years to come. How are things going to reshape? Is the elite consensus going to reshape the popular consensus? Or is the popular consensus going to find an avenue of political power in order to change, or reshape that elite consensus? And I don't know, I don't think anyone really knows. And I think it'll be a fascinating process to watch unfold.
Seth Barron: Well, it certainly sounds like we're in a pickle.
Thank you, Chris. Your research sounds fascinating and I look forward to seeing more of it.
Well, don't forget to check out Chris Rufo's work on the City Journal website, city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can follow him on Twitter @realchrisrufo. Chris's latest short documentary, which was released at the beginning of August, it could be found on YouTube, is called Chaos by the Bay: The Truth About Homelessness in San Francisco. It's really disturbing, actually. You can find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal, and Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, give us a five star rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening. And thanks Chris for joining us.
Chris Rufo: Thank you.