Christopher F. Rufo joins Brian Anderson to discuss his reporting on critical race theory in American businesses, the ongoing parental pushback against divisive curricula, and the pitched political battle over CRT.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Christopher Rufo. Chris has been on the show before. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and he's a contributing editor at City Journal. To say his reporting on critical race theory in American schools and business has made waves is to understate things. His work on the subject is actually having a tangible effect on the direction of the country. We're going to talk about that work this week. Chris, thanks very much for joining us.

Christopher Rufo: It's great to be with you.

Brian Anderson: Let's start with your ongoing investigative series on woke capital. Listeners can find it on the City Journal website. As you've described in this series, businesses from Walmart to CVS to Google, Raytheon, they've been hosting these training sessions that basically cajole white employees into apologizing for their race, and they insist that the U.S. is a fundamentally racist country. What have been some of the most striking things you've found in the course of your reporting on this?

Christopher Rufo: Well, I mean the most striking thing, big picture, is that what you saw in universities ten years ago that most Americans could laugh off or dismiss as a phenomenon that was restricted to the campus has migrated through all of the elite American institutions and even into an unlikely place: to the Fortune 100 C-suite office. Even a company like Walmart, for example, that is based in Arkansas, it's traditionally been a more conservative company, was teaching that the United States is a fundamentally racist place, that their white employees had internalized racist attitudes and beliefs, not because of their behavior but by virtue of their internal racial identity, and then advocated a radical left-wing program. In all of these companies promoting ideas like defund the police, transgender activism, the whole suite of fashionable left-wing ideologies are now being pushed through corporate HR departments. For me, that was something that was so fascinating, so unexpected, so bizarre. I just had to learn more.

Brian Anderson: So how do these businesses come to decide to run these kind of training sessions? Is this really just the kind of a bright idea of some newly hired HR executive?

Christopher Rufo: In some cases, it seems to be that higher-ups don't know about it. I did some reporting on Bank of America and other financial institutions, and the word that I got back was that the executives were horrified. They put a stop to it. They were really trying to figure out who did it. Nobody signed off on it. They didn't know it was happening. But I think actually more common than that is that executives are actually bought into it. Again at Walmart, for example, the CEO of Walmart has made a huge public push for these kind of training programs. He established a Racial Equity Institute, spending $100 million to promote some of these ideas and ideologies. For him, I think what you can safely surmise is that it provides social status, it provides prestige, and it also really critically provides an insurance policy against left-wing activists and pressure groups and race activism groups.

So what they do is they play this dance where they're very much neoliberal, free market, in their economic affairs, but in their cultural affairs, they're trying to buy off the left wing. They're trying to gain some power and prestige. I think for many of these guys, what I heard over and over in my reporting with people who have C-suite access and knowledge, they said, "Hey, look, if you're a Fortune 100 CEO, you have money. You're rich. You're making $10, $20, $30 million a year, but you don't have fame. You don't have necessarily prestige." This gives them both. It gives them the best of both worlds.

Brian Anderson: It does underscore what seems to be a class dimension to these trainings, what the social thinker Rob Henderson calls luxury beliefs. The wealthy can sort of absorb this kind of stuff. But when you look at the employees being subjected to the training in many cases, as in Walmart or CVS, they're not really making a lot of money. What do you think about the class dimension?

Christopher Rufo: Yeah, that's exactly right. The corporate diversity training is so thick with irony, it's almost impossible to cut through. What you have in many cases like Walt Disney Corporation or Walmart, you have white male executives almost exclusively that have combined net worth in the billions of dollars lecturing their white, male, hourly-wage workers on their white privilege, their internalized white supremacy, their white fragility, their whiteness itself. You have the wealthiest, most privileged White men in the country lecturing their workforce about their privilege. It's so bizarre.

I think if you look at the original literature on white privilege from a guy named Noel Ignatiev, who was a steel worker and then got a Ph.D. in education at Harvard, his idea was actually breaking down white privilege among the working class would allow them to create a cross-racial working class movement to achieve democratic socialism. But what corporate executives in America in 2021 have done is perverted it and reversed it entirely. It's actually a method for them to suppress and to shame and to put down their own workers while raising their own status and prestige. So even on the own terms of white privilege theory, they've taken it so far out of context that it becomes, I think, from both sides, from a conservative and from a liberal side, nothing more than a farce.

Brian Anderson: I imagine that these training sessions are provoking backlash, at least among some employees. You've received alerts and documents from disgruntled employees. How extensive do you think any kind of backlash is in the corporate world?

Christopher Rufo: The backlash, there's an issue, there's a structural problem. So what we've seen in the last year is a tremendous backlash and a tremendous impact from parents at school board meetings. But we haven't seen it, and even after the series of stories which I had hoped would gain some traction, we haven't seen that same kind of activism, that same feeling of a large backlash within corporations. I think the structural problem is really this. Parents are a third party in the school system. It's a relationship between teachers and students. Parents have a third party authority as voters, as people who can attend school board meetings.

Corporate employees are within the relationship between management and employees. They don't have an equivalent position of power that gives them a bit more freedom to speak. So all of the corporate employees that I talked to, all of them, to a T they asked to be anonymous, they asked that their identity be held private because they feared punishment. They feared retaliation. They feared backlash within the corporation because these ideas, critical race theory and other related ideologies, are the default within Corporate America. Just opposing them even politely, even gently, even with the requisite caveats is seen as violating a taboo within Corporate America. So people are remaining silent, and they're just relying on us in the media to try to get the story out there enough that it generates a public discussion, hoping that CEOs, and we have some evidence that this might already be happening, start to back down.

Brian Anderson: I guess they can get fired is the bottom line there, so they're worried about their jobs. You mentioned schools. You've done a similar investigative series on critical race theory and related ideologies being imposed in America's classrooms. In California, as you reported, children as young as seven were being told to rank themselves according to their power and privilege. In Seattle, the school district claimed that the U.S. education system was guilty of "spirit murder" against blacks. One crazy thing after another.

Now this reporting shocked the conscience of many Americans, and it's obviously having real political consequences. As you're reporting circulated, parents attending school board meetings across the country, they started to demand to know what their kids were being taught. Now, the response to this on the left was that the protests were AstroTurf, they were fake. That the controversy was ginned up, but I think this month's elections proved otherwise. In Virginia, you had a Republican governor, after winning over suburbanites—people of all races, it should be noted—who agreed that the state school system have become unaccountable. Around the country local school board elections, statewide races, they went to those who were advocating for parental rights.

Brian Anderson: In your view, what is the message that ordinary Americans are now sending to teachers unions, fashionable administrators, radical activists? It just seems to me like a wave is starting to build to really push back against this critical race theory agenda.

Christopher Rufo: Yeah, it is, and it's been really exciting to watch. It's been something that has built over time and seems to only be gaining momentum. What parents are saying is really simple: "We want to have the ultimate say in what happens with our children. We want to have an active of role in shaping our kids' education, in shaping our kids' moral development." We find that a lot of these practices that school districts are really hiding from parents and implementing without their permission and in many cases, even their knowledge or awareness, violate our conscience, violate our beliefs, violate what we think about our country, what we think our kids should be learning. It's not just as some on the left are saying, "Well, we have to teach honest history." All of us agree with that, and I think virtually everyone, except maybe some oddballs at the margins would want a full, honest, and sometimes painful account of American history.

But what we don't want is for teachers to separate students into racial groups, judge them oppressor and oppressed and then force them through a series of wrenching psychological exercises to surface their guilt, their shame, their complicity, and their racial essence, which can be divided as whiteness and blackness or synonymously good and evil. So parents object to this, and parents are really starting to feel like the public schools, the teachers unions, the state is starting to drive a wedge between parent and child, especially mother and child is what we've seen.

So it's one thing when you have critical race theory in academia. A parent in Ohio or Tennessee can laugh about what's happening on the campus in Yale or Harvard. But when you actually get down to their kids, when you're telling them that they should be ashamed for who they are in kindergarten, this is going to spark a backlash.

Our opponents on the left haven't quite figured out how to get around this. They've tried to say, as you suggested, that this is AstroTurf, that this is about history, that critical race theory doesn't exist. They haven't settled on a narrative because they can't actually defend what's happening, these pedagogies, on the substance. Therefore, they're seeking to deflect, to diffuse or to shift blame. What we've seen in Virginia, what we're seeing all across the country is that parents are too smart. They see right through it, and this strategy has failed.

Brian Anderson: The subject of your latest piece is a kind of darker aspect of the resistance against this. It's the sort of counter to the counter critical race theory movement. So you have the Attorney General of the United States, Merrick Garland, responding to a letter from the National School Boards Association, which has since been retracted, launching an inter-agency task force to investigate parental protests as domestic terrorism. Mainstream media have launched a full court press to criticize the anti-CRT movement as motivated by racism. Democratic politicians have pushed back alternating, as you just noted, between defending the basic principles of CRT and insisting that it's not taught in schools. How do you see this evolving—maybe say a little bit more about that over the long-term? Will the Democrats recognize that this seems to be a political disaster for them and back down? Or are they going to keep on moving?

Christopher Rufo: Well, we can get some insight into that question by just monitoring the New York Times, the Washington Post, and MSNBC, the holy trinity of left-liberal media. There seem to be two camps. There are some writers and commentators that are starting to say, "Hey, wait a minute. Some of this stuff in the classrooms is egregious. Some of these practices are pseudo scientific and harmful, and we shouldn't defend them. We should actually separate ourselves from them. These parents have a point." Then some of them are really retreating into another posture. Business Insider had a piece, for example, that said that we should double down on calling these parents racists and white supremacists that are taking over our schools. This really extreme fearmongering and doubling down on this idea that if parents oppose something, they must be racist.

So there's now a war between the more moderate and rational thinkers and commentators and the more militant and radical thinkers and commentators. Right now they're hashing it out on the op-ed pages and within the cable TV segments. From my perspective, this is good. There's actually a debate now on the left. I hope for the sake of the schools and kids that the cooler heads and the more rational minds prevail, but I don't think that's guaranteed, and I don't think that's where the energy is. I think the reality is that they're going to go down even harder on what Terry McAuliffe did in Virginia, which is to basically call anyone and anything standing in their way a racist or a white supremacist. Unfortunately for them, that has been the go-to now for five years. It's been so saturated where everything from square dancing to mathematics to travel to whatever is denounced as white supremacy. I think the American people are weary of this kind of rhetoric, and they don't believe it anymore. In fact, they're turning away from it.

Brian Anderson: It's very, very, very interesting material, Chris. You're working on a book that's going to explore some of these themes. I wonder if you can give us an anticipation of where that's going.

Christopher Rufo: Yeah. I'm working on a book now for Harper Collins, and it's going to be a really deep dive—this all began with my reporting for City Journal—on critical race theory, first in the federal government, then in schools, then in corporations. So what we're doing at City Journal is really exposing through original source document reporting exactly what's happening right now in America's institutions. Then simultaneously on a separate track with the book I'm going under the surface, I'm going underground burrowing into the history, looking at where these ideas come from and then profiling some of the personalities like Herbert Marcuse, Paulo Freire, Angela Davis, Derrick Bell, all of these thinkers and intellectuals from the 1960s and 1970s that set the stage for what's happening today. So the book is going to be really trying to peel back the onion. If you are concerned about what's happening in our country, if you're worried about what you see in our institutions, I'm going to now do the deep dive and try to unravel this mystery of where it comes from, where it's going, why and how it operates.

Brian Anderson: Well, that sounds very, very interesting, Chris. Thank you very much for coming on as always. Don't forget to check out Chris Rufo's work on the City Journal website. We'll link to his author page in the description. He's on Twitter @realchrisrufo, and you can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As usual, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Chris. Thanks again, and congratulations on all the terrific success.

Christopher Rufo: Thank you.

Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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