Critical Race Theory

How Chris Rufo Became the Thing He Hates

His panicked manifesto contains a strong case against CRT activism, but he ultimately falls into the same trap as his enemies.


Christopher Rufo wants you to be afraid. A sinister woke ideology, promoted by a shadowy cabal, is infiltrating America's treasured institutions, from your childrens' classrooms to the corporate boardroom. Far-left activists have weaponized anti-racism to capture the commanding heights of politics and culture, thus "effectuating a wholesale moral reversal" under the banner of "diversity, equity, and inclusion."

It is a testament to Rufo's marketing talent that his complaints feel entirely mundane at this point in the culture war. Prior to Rufo, critical race theory, or CRT, had been an obscure school of legal thought relegated to a few radical law school departments. The proposition that CRT would become a lynchpin of American political discourse in the early 2020s would once have been laughable, but it became deadly serious when Rufo went on Tucker Carlson's cable news show in the summer of 2020.

There, Rufo blamed critical race theory for the post–George Floyd eruption of civil rights protests. That caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who promptly penned an executive order prohibiting CRT from being used in the federal government's training seminars and materials. Rufo has since been appointed by Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis to the board of trustees at New College of Florida, where Rufo has spearheaded a purge of left-wing professors.

In America's Cultural Revolution, Rufo argues that CRT is both more prevalent and older than even many of its critics believe it to be. Inasmuch as CRT is the unifying ideological architecture of contemporary left activism, he claims, it is the culmination of a "genealogy of darkness" that runs back to the 1960s.

The book is divided up into four similarly structured sections. Each begins with a potted biography of a '60s radical (Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell), outlines their beliefs, and finally asserts their influence on left-wing activism today. The arc of each story is one of declension and renewal. As the heady successes of the '60s gave way to alienation by the '70s, Rufo writes, these radical prophets and their disciples retreated to safe havens in elite universities. Over the next half-century, Rufo claims, they planned a Maoist "long march through the institutions," finally reemerging as the elder statesmen of left-wing protest movements in the 2010s and 2020s.

Rufo's biographical accounts are accurate and his summations of his subjects' views are often correct (albeit highly selective), but he often struggles to show a significant connection between their influence in the sixties and any concrete connection to current movements. For example, while Herbert Marcuse was undeniably influential in the '60s, that does not mean he remains a major influence today. As a retrospective on his work in the left-wing magazine Dissent asked in 2014, "Has the stature of any intellectual fallen more dramatically than that of Herbert Marcuse?" Indeed, it is a cause of annoyance to many on the radical left that philosophers they accuse of being "neoliberal," such as Michel Foucault, are required reading in graduate schools while Marxists like Marcuse are marginalized.

Instead of doing the arduous work of intellectual history to prove a substantial connection, Rufo falls back on the fact that many of the phrases these radicals popularized in the '60s—such as "police brutality" and "racial equity"—are still in use today. Yet one of the markers of social movement formation is linguistic borrowing, and by itself that does not necessarily prove direct intellectual influence. After all, most 21st century libertarians proudly call themselves "capitalists," despite the term's origins as an epithet invented by 19th century socialists.

Doing this allows Rufo to paint contemporary social movements that he dislikes with a radical brush. Since Angela Davis probably got away with being an accessory to murder in 1970, and since her fellow Black Panther Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase "institutional racism," then ipso facto everyone using the phrase today—from George Floyd marchers to The New York Times—must be in Davis's dangerous thrall.

This is part of Rufo's evident interest in the tactical power of language. He accuses left-wing radicals of performing a Nietzschean "transvaluation of values," in which the outward form of a system remains the same even as its meaning is hollowed out and replaced with something entirely different. For instance, he asserts that the concept of "anti-racism" has been transformed from its original meaning of opposition to anti-black racism into a rhetorical weapon of anti-white activism.

But elsewhere Rufo has openly admitted to transvaluating the values of the left himself. As he explained in a series of tweets, his goal has been to take the narrow concept of "critical race theory" and "recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans." Whenever ordinary people "read something crazy in the newspaper"—whether about civil rights or trans rights—Rufo wants them to "immediately think 'critical race theory" and thus "toxify" the brands of left-wing movements. In other words, Rufo is hollowing out the original meaning of the phrase "critical race theory" and filling it with content that is politically useful to him in direct proportion to how misleading it is to the public. He would do unto others precisely what he claims they are doing unto him.

As such, Rufo is an unreliable narrator. Each claim he makes in this book should be taken with a grain of salt, given his overt willingness to weaponize meaning for the sake of political utility. 

A sense of misdirection surfaces repeatedly throughout the book. For instance, Rufo first complains that left-wing activists exaggerate how frequently unarmed black men are shot and killed by police, given that the actual number is about 15 a year. Yet he then turns around and lists each ambush of police officers in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests. The number of victims? Sixteen, total. For Rufo, the former statistic proves the puerility of left-wing complaints about police brutality while the latter is incontrovertible evidence of the inherently violent nature of anti-racism. That math only makes sense to the partisan score-settler.

Nor can the reader trust that the hard evidence being proffered—even when accurate—actually means what Rufo purports. For instance, in order to prove the pervasiveness of CRT in "virtually every discipline in the universities," Rufo searched two academic databases, including Google Scholar, and found 390,000 articles, papers, and the like referencing CRT. But anybody can do a quick search of Google Scholar for "conservatism" and see that the engine returns 1.02 million results. Should we infer that the academy is overrun with conservatives who have launched what "can only be described as an intellectual coup" after having "achieved victory through volume"? Of course not.

In another instance of inflation, Rufo points to a document using terms like "systematically racist" that was produced by the Treasury Department's Office of Minority and Women Inclusion as evidence that CRT has taken over the federal government. It's more likely that the document's primary impact was felt while hitting the bottom of a thousand Treasury trash cans, yet Rufo offers it as proof that "after fifty years, the long march had been completed" and the radical left had finally "attained ideological power within the American state." This is less Mao's long march and more Karen's short walk around the block.

Ultimately, the book convinced me of the opposite of its premise: America is doing all right. Rufo wants to scare readers with the prospect that the "slow, hulking machine of critical race ideology will continue to accumulate power and marginalize democratic opposition." Instead, I find a tale of the ways extreme views either sow the seeds of their own destruction by alienating the general public—which happened to many radical movements of the '60s, as Rufo outlines—or divert themselves into irrelevance in the hands of dull corporate human resource managers and government bureaucrats.

Rufo's book contains some legitimate examples of what can go wrong when unhinged activists gain control of a location or institution. But Rufo offers only an inverted mirror image of his targets. If the left seeks to abuse the power of the state to impose CRT orthodoxy on students and businesses, then Rufo would have the right impose an anti-CRT counter-orthodoxy. If the radical left wants a revolution, then Rufo says the radical right needs to launch a "counter-revolution."

A pox on both their houses. As Rufo himself declares, "The rule of the margins is not automatically better, but often worse, than the rule of the center." Classical liberalism offers a better path, one which eschews state overreach on behalf of the orthodoxies of either the far left or reactionary right.