A Contentious Encounter With the Architect of the Right’s Attack on ‘Critical Race Theory’

Christopher Rufo and Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson clash over whether there is a pernicious leftist “American cultural revolution.”

Today, Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson speaks to Christopher Rufo, the architect of the right’s “critical race theory” moral panic and a close advisor of Ron DeSantis. Rufo has lately been criticized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for appearing to retaliate against public university professors for their political beliefs in his capacity as a trustee of New College of Florida. His new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything argues that 60s radicals have successfully staged a “long march through the institutions” and exhorts conservatives to stage a “counter-revolution.” You can read the review that Robinson and Matt McManus wrote of that book here. The transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and to adjust for the considerable cross-talk in the original audio.

Nathan J. Robinson 

Let me lay out for you first where I come from on this. Your book is about how the “radical left conquered everything.” Obviously, you can’t literally mean “everything.” We clearly haven’t fully conquered HarperCollins Books or the Manhattan Institute. But I consider myself a member of the “radical left.” I’ve been working within it for a few years now. I wrote a book called Why You Should Be a Socialist, and my impression has been that the left in this country is very weak.

The leftists that I know are trying to do things like: ‘

  • raise the minimum wage to $15
  • deal with the climate crisis and scale down fossil fuel use because it’s boiling outside
  • protect women’s rights to an abortion, which your guy Ron DeSantis is trying to do away with
  • parental leave
  • Medicare for All: making sure everyone doesn’t have to fear going bankrupt going to the doctor
  • improving teacher wages
  • giving Amazon workers bathroom breaks
  • and of course that nebulous concept, “racial equity”: trying to make sure Black kids get the same level of schooling as white kids, closing the wealth gap, and stopping Black people from being roughed up by the police.

And so, I’ve had guest after guest on this program from the left, and that’s the sort of stuff they’ve talked about. Certainly, my impression is that they haven’t conquered too much of it yet. So when I read this whole “the radical left has conquered everything,” it sounds fairly delusional to me. It’s interesting to me to even try to have a conversation about this, because the things that you’re talking about in this book are so far from the things that I and I think my leftist colleagues think truly matter in the world. So, perhaps you could start by convincing me that I’m wrong, and that the things that I just listed have, in fact, been achieved?

Rufo 

Absolutely, let me enlighten you. You have to read the subtitle in light of the title. So, the title is “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.” Of course, everything is a bit cheeky, provocative, polemical, and strategic use of hyperbole and rhetoric.

Robinson

So, not true.

Rufo

They haven’t conquered my office here. But you have to read the subtitle in light of the title. And so, why is it “America’s Cultural Revolution,” rather than, for example, as you might want, “America’s socialist revolution”? Because after World War II, and then starting in the late 1960s, and accelerating to the present—and I think you and I would likely actually agree on this—the Socialist left, the more orthodox Marxist left even that wants to have a classless society, or in the kind of lowering of ambition, wants to have many of these structural economic changes that you’ve described just now, has not succeeded. I’d be 100% agreement, and very thankful for that. If that were to happen, we’d have a very different country in many worse ways. 

Robinson 

Amazon workers would get bathroom breaks. 

Rufo 

But you have to know that it’s a cultural revolution. And so, specifically, you’re looking at the institutions and the culture of institutions. So the culture of CRT [Critical Race Theory] in graduate schools of education, or K through 12 classrooms, or the DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] departments that are now in one hundred of the top Fortune 100 companies, even to the point some of these ideas have been appropriated and redeployed as as as marketing messages for brand campaigns. And so, when I say the radical left has conquered everything, I mean—

Robinson 

You don’t mean that. 

Rufo 

I’m very thankful that it’s not the orthodox or the Old Left. But let’s be honest—it’s probably a frustration that you have—the real driving force of the left has given up on a Marxist or even a socialist economy and that kind of structural vision. There’s no appetite for that in this country. And I’m afraid that you and your colleagues who want that are really a remnant, not just of the broader political culture, but even of the left, and certainly not the subject or the key interest that I describe in the book. 

Robinson 

It just strikes me that your book is highly misleading. I supported the Bernie Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020. We’ve got writers on strike right now. Greg Abbott in Texas just prohibited cities from restricting employers from making workers work in the heat. The leftists I know are working on these material things. You don’t say that, and you don’t make that distinction clear throughout the book. In fact, you say throughout “the left is doing this, the left is doing that.” The left, left, left, left. The goal of the left is to destroy all Western institutions. And I think to myself, “But hang on a minute.” 

Rufo 

Well, I don’t think I say that. Where do I say that? I don’t say that exactly.

Robinson 

“Has the goal of the left actually been the destruction of every Western institution?” [quote from book’s official website] I guess you’d say “no” to your own question. 

Rufo 

Did I write that? I’m unaware. Maybe you found something that I don’t have immediately present. But I don’t think that that’s the case that I make in the book exactly. And I also don’t think that is really a fair representation. The left, of course, can be described as many things. You define it one way. But I think embedded in the context and the arguments of the book, all the research and evidence marshaled in the book, I think it’s very clear what fraction or faction of the left that I’m referring to. And so, if you’ve read it, and felt like “Well, that’s not me,” it’s not about you. It’s about other people and other ideas. I think anybody that takes an honest look will understand I’m not saying a blanket or universal statement. It’s a very specific argument that I lay out.

Robinson 

But it is a universal statement! “This book is an effort to understand the ideology that drives the politics of the modern left.”

Rufo 

That’s right. 

Robinson 

But then I open the leading leftist magazine in the country, Jacobin, and I look at the headlines, and they are about things like the writers’ strike, or they’re about the fact that you can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment working full time.

Rufo 

But would you say that Jacobin is representative of the—

Robinson 

Of the left?

Rufo 

Would you say Jacobin is the ideological force behind the largest movements of the left? I don’t think so. 

Robinson 

It’s the leading leftist magazine in the country. I think they’ve got a higher circulation than any other leftist publication. 

Rufo 

I don’t know about that. 

Robinson 

But why leave that out of your story?

Rufo 

Leave what? Jacobin magazine? 

Robinson 

Leaving out issues like unionization, leaving out housing. The Sunrise Movement and climate change. The movement for Medicare for All. Abortion rights. 

Rufo 

The book is not about climate change! You can critique the book, but you can’t say, “Well, you should have written a book about all of these other issues.” I mean, the subject of the book—

Robinson 

But you’re writing a book about the left!

Rufo 

And what is your argument? That I should write about the left in the frame of all the issues that you like, but not the ones that I’m focusing on? 

Robinson 

That if you’re writing about the left and institutions, you should represent it accurately. 

Rufo 

No…. I think that, sure, maybe I’ll write another book and include some of those issues. 

Robinson 

An accurate one. 

Rufo 

But you’re saying basically that the issue selection that I’ve done to describe America’s Cultural Revolution doesn’t include climate change. I think it’s a bit odd. Climate change is irrelevant to the lineage, the ideology—certainly the focus of the book is on the theory of revolution of the New Left; the theory of racial revolution, beginning with the Black Panther Party and going to BLM; the theory of Neo Marxist pedagogy starting with Paulo Freire and going into the teachers unions; and then critical race theory. And so climate change, it’s like—

Robinson 

That’s the thing that most leftists that I know are—

Rufo 

Plenty of people have written about climate change. You can read Mike Shellenberger, a friend of mine, on climate change.

Robinson 

I have. He lies about it a lot. 

Rufo 

This has nothing to do with climate change. It’s like, pull a rabbit out of your hat.

Robinson 

You think this is more ridiculous than I do, because you strike me as a man who just doesn’t talk to many leftists.

Rufo 

That’s not true. 

Robinson 

The climate crisis is the leading thing that every leftist that I know is concerned about because it’s so pressing. People are collapsing and dying in the heat. And then you’re talking about diversity programs.

Rufo 

But the book is about critical race theory and diversity programs.

Robinson 

The young people in the Sunrise Movement, man! The Zoomers! That’s all they care about, their future on a warming planet. 

Rufo 

The Sunrise Movement is some sort of astroturf, where they deploy kids to get people feeling guilty and try to manipulate them into talking about the weather. 

Robinson 

The weather? It’s the hottest—

Rufo 

Traditionally, if you’re talking about the weather, it’s something that you do in polite company because you don’t want to talk about something more controversial and more interesting. “Oh yeah, how’s the weather?” The left has turned the conversation about the weather. 

Robinson 

Oh, man, oh, man. Go outside! It’s the hottest year ever! Global warming is getting worse every year, a lot of people are going to die. No? Okay. All right. I want to ask you about this term “nihilism” that you use. You said a new “nihilism” is beginning to surround the common man. What do you mean by that? 

Rufo 

Sure. So by “nihilism” what I mean by that, and if you specifically look at the ideologies outlined in the book, follow them to their practical consequences, actually read the literature from that late 1970s period, and then you trace the descendants of those ideas, what you find over and over is that they deploy only the negative side of what they think of as the revolutionary dialectic, and so they’re unable to—and they do this very self-consciously—move beyond just the most abstract utopian vision: we’re going to get to a society that is a utopia where these problems are solved, transcended the limitations of human nature, and embedded the revolution into our biology. That’s the kind of language you see, but then you actually look at the practical outcomes, of, let’s say, even tracing it forward to BLM. What did BLM achieve? It achieved record high homicide rates in Black communities. It restricted or reduced police presence in some of the poorest inner-city neighborhoods, leading to an increase in crime and violence targeted towards the people who they were supposed to help. And so, in every case, there is a utopianism that then goes through a process of disillusionment, and the practical outcome is death and destruction, ultimately ending in a kind of nihilism because they’re committed to that negative side of that dialectic. They can never actually create any substantive alternatives that actually lead to a flourishing of human beings as an actual implementation of greater justice. And so it becomes really a kind of ego-driven thing. All that’s left is the ego. And so you see that Black Lives Matter is cynical. These people raised hundreds of millions of dollars across many entities. They looted these organizations, disappeared to their mansions, and left the people that they were supposed to help in worse real, tangible, material, social, political and criminal justice conditions than ever. And that, to me, is just really a textbook form of nihilism. All that lacks is the ego and the image, where the actual human consequences are quite dark.

Robinson 

I find it “nihilism” a weird term to use. I find that the people that I talk to in Black Lives Matter and related movements are not only pretty idealistic, but have pretty clear things they want to do. The Movement For Black Lives has a long agenda. It’s pretty concrete. They want to end the death penalty, alternatives to incarcerating young people, and demilitarize law enforcement agencies. When I pick up a book like Ibram Kendi’s book, he ends with “believe that we can transform our societies to eliminate racist policies. Racist policies aren’t indestructible, inequities aren’t inevitable, racist ideas aren’t natural.” 

Rufo 

But that’s a perfect example. That’s the perfect example of the process and of what I’m saying. Even Kendi says, “we want to have a society that is totally transcended from racism.” And that sounds great. I agree. 

Robinson 

Well, you think we’ve already achieved it. 

Rufo 

In the abstract, that’s a noble goal. But even Kendi, when you nail him down on specifics, what do you want and what should we do to get there? Henry Rogers, aka Ibram X. Kendi, says, “What we need is a federal department of anti-racism that can deploy positive discrimination against disfavored groups and that can restrict the speech of anything that is deemed racist speech.” So, obliterating the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment, and then having a bureaucracy with plenary power over American society to reengineer everyone’s speech, thought, behavior, employment, economy, etc., to achieve Kendi’s goals. And of course, that sounds a lot like any of the other revolutions of the 20th century that ended with bureaucratic tyranny. And even Herbert Marcuse, the philosopher at the heart of the book, was smart and honest enough to admit that the Soviet Union—he even he wrote this in the 1950s, to his credit—was a perversion of that utopian ideal and had ended in catastrophic human carnage, bureaucratic tyranny, and was not an example for the left. And so when people revive these ideas and transpose them into a racial language and say, “Well, it didn’t work out in the last 100 years, but maybe if we do it, to have an anti-racist total state that administers society towards this utopia, maybe then it will work out,” I just find that so ignorant—ignorant of history and of human nature. I’ll try to make it brief to give you a chance to respond, but my last point is this. Ultimately, I think it’s a brand building exercise for people like Ibram Kendi to rack up speaking fees to go on the DEI circuit. But they have really nothing tangible to offer. I once was part of that old school more socialist left, and if I were still part of that, I would feel outraged and betrayed by these leaders. Critical Race theorists have nothing to offer poor Black families in housing projects in places like Memphis, Tennessee; they have everything to offer their peers in elite academic institutions where they trade status, prestige, and speaking gigs. But it’s all a play. It’s all an act. 

Robinson 

The critique that academics and intellectuals are somewhat useless is one that I would certainly accept. The critique that the social justice movement is building a Soviet-style dystopia that can be justly compared with the Maoist Cultural Revolution, where the rivers ran with human bodies, strikes me as so ludicrous as to be almost impossible for a rational mind to entertain.

Rufo 

I’m not saying that it’s happening. I’m saying that Kendi’s policy proposal is akin to that. And that’s undeniable. Just read the text. What is our country without the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment?

Robinson 

I don’t think that’s true at all. I think Ibram Kendi believes in affirmative action. I don’t think he believes in shooting dissidents. I think that’s crazy. And when I look in your book at some of the examples of what you think the real outrages are, you list things that you believe capture this contemporary insanity. And I’ll just quote from you a list of dystopian things that the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities under the pernicious influence of CRT and such have done. They funded, for example, “a speaking series on race reconciliation and transformation, a National Black Writers Conference on reconstructing the master narrative, an artist in residency program for racial equity and leadership certificate program in diversity, equity inclusion, an art exhibit on race, gender, and globalization and oversees research program that aims to dismantle hierarchies of race and civilization, a biography, exploiting the Black Power movement, a dance theater trilogy on race, culture and identity and a stage play for a manifesto on race to the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate.” And I actually looked up what that stage play was. The summary is:

“Margaret uproots her life, including her dead-end job and fizzling relationship, after finding out that she is unexpectedly expecting. She finds support and humor from her sassy and sharp Aunt Sylvia and her new friendship with Carolina, a pregnant cleaning lady at her office. BREACH is a smart comedy about friendship, motherhood, and family, and tackles the mother of all challenges: learning to love yourself.”

This stuff just didn’t really leave me thinking that Western civilization is in peril, and that the people you’re talking about are, in fact, going to establish this totalitarian equity regime.

Rufo 

Well, that, of course, in context is merely an example of the capture of the cultural institutions such as the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts]—

Robinson 

Seems fine!

Rufo 

—that really just fund exclusively left wing agitprop, I think it’s a huge waste.

Robinson 

Agitprop? The play about Aunt Sylvia and Margaret? 

Rufo 

Yes, it’s not exactly Flaubert. It’s not exactly Twain. This is the kind of mass-produced schlock—

Robinson 

What, because they’re not white?

Rufo 

No, not because of that. Because listen to the plot. “Learning to love ourselves.” It’s like self-help literature that is funded by the government. I think the government should not be in the interest of left-wing coded self-help literature. That’s a total waste of money. It’s not a totalitarian overreach, I don’t make that argument at all. You’re imposing that on it. But it’s merely to list the examples of the kinds of projects that are funded. We’re not making great art anymore in the United States. We’re certainly not making great art that’s subsidized by the federal bureaucracy. It’s an example of taking something that—again, the creation of great art is a noble impulse, and then reducing it to just a political agitprop function.

Robinson 

I have to say, I don’t know how you know that BREACH isn’t good art. The fact that you say “Oh, it’s not Twain, it’s not Flaubert.” 

Rufo 

You’re making the case that it is?

Robinson 

Because it’s about Black women? Have you seen the play? What didn’t you like about it? 

Rufo 

No, come on. You don’t even believe that.

Robinson 

Well, I don’t understand what your standard is. 

Rufo 

Do you believe that it’s great art? Hold on. Do you believe this is on the caliber of a Flaubert? Tell me.

Robinson 

I haven’t seen it, Chris! 

Rufo 

Okay, so you think that it might be?

Robinson 

Of course, it might be, I haven’t seen it! 

Rufo 

Okay, well, you should watch it. You should check it out. You could discover the next Flaubert.

Robinson 

One of the things that struck me about your book is that you spent a lot of time talking about these radical theorists: here’s who they are, here is the influence they’ve had. And then you say we need a counter-revolution. But I would have liked to see more evidence that they were wrong. Because a lot of the times when you cite something that you say is some crazy critical race theory thing, I find my reaction to be “Well, sounds like they kind of have a point.” For example, you say the National Credit Union Administration told the employees America was “founded on white supremacy”; “Critical race theorists argue that America was founded on racism, slavery, white supremacy”; or Derrick Bell “attacked Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as racist hypocrites.” But they were. It was founded on racism. They were racist hypocrites.

Rufo 

No, the United States was not founded on racism. I think that is a total misunderstanding of history. 

Robinson 

How many founding fathers were Black? 

Rufo 

How many people in the Chinese Politburo are European? It’s like the representation fact. Look, hold on—

Robinson 

There’s not a big class of European slaves in China. But if there was, it would be a racist state.

Rufo 

That’s true. But look, if you ask, “What was the United States founded on?” It’s a very specific question, and I’ll answer the question for you. The United States was founded on a vision of human nature, of natural rights, of equality and liberty. 

Robinson 

That excluded Black people. 

Rufo 

And of course, was there also simultaneous slavery? Yes. Is that hypocritical? Looking backwards, of course it is. But these are all people who were born into a system that was a human universal.

Robinson 

It wasn’t. Black people didn’t think they were unequal.

Rufo 

And they established the standard towards which the United States moved. And so the question is not “Are we better people than the American founders on these issues?” The question is, “Have we moved the world towards greater liberty and equality?”

Robinson 

That’s your question.

Rufo 

And if you compare it back to what they did, they moved the entire human civilization toward the principles of liberty and equality. 

Robinson 

That’s your question. My question is, “Aren’t the critical race theorists correct that the Founding Fathers were racist hypocrites?” 

Rufo 

They did more to move the human civilization toward liberty and equality than anyone else. And so to reverse impose, that they were “racist,” to take our conceptions of that term, is so lazy. 

Robinson 

It’s a fact.

Rufo 

It’s so untruthful. 

Robinson 

You don’t believe that Thomas Jefferson was a racist? 

Rufo 

It’s not true. It’s such a lazy reduction.

Robinson 

Do you want me to quote him? 

Rufo 

No. I think that’s a totally unfair way of looking at it. I think that you have to look at it in the context of their own historical period. And I would say that Thomas Jefferson did more for equality—

Robinson 

Except for Black people.

Rufo 

—than anyone else in the history of the world. No. Look at Lincoln. What did Lincoln say? Do you think Lincoln was racist? Let’s just get that out of the way first.

Robinson 

I think Lincoln had prejudices. But Frederick Douglass was a big admirer of Lincoln. Lincoln was—

Rufo 

I don’t think we need the authority of Frederick Douglass to recognize that Lincoln—to adopt some of the terms you might like—was an anti-racist president. I mean, Lincoln did more for racial equality than just about anyone. It’s a convenient way to duck the question. I don’t need to delegate the authority to Frederick Douglass, although it’s helpful as a point.

Robinson 

It’s a convenient way to duck the question about the founding fathers. 

Rufo 

No, I’m getting there. Let me finish. So what did Lincoln say? Lincoln said that Jefferson set the silver frame of the Declaration of Independence, for the Golden Apple of racial equality.

Robinson 

But he was also a racist. 

Rufo 

And so Lincoln, who I think has a much better understanding of these issues intellectually, but also just in his own human experience and what he went through and what he did, recognized that Jefferson was a tragic figure, because of—

Robinson 

Because of his racism.

Rufo 

—the necessities of history that hemmed him in at the time. 

Robinson 

He wasn’t hemmed in. Nothing stopped him from releasing his slaves.

Rufo 

But that he put the silver frame—

Robinson 

Silver frame. That sounds very nice. 

Rufo 

He set the highest standards, that allowed then Lincoln to achieve the next step in the process towards that Golden Apple. 

Robinson 

He could have achieved it himself if he hadn’t enslaved people. 

Rufo 

So I think to go back and say, “Oh, they’re all racist.” It’s just so lazy. 

Robinson 

But it’s true. It’s not lazy, it’s just a fact. 

Rufo 

I’m going to tell you what I really think it is. I think it comes from a sense of our own inferiority as modern people. Especially on the left. It’s very easy to tear down a statue of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and say, “These people were bad.” But if we’re actually truthful, I think it’s because those people make a lot of these left-wing activists feel so small, so insignificant, and so underwhelming. I think it’s a sense of inferiority.

Robinson 

I would say people are genuinely upset by slavery. 

Rufo 

They revolt against the great figures who did more for racial equality than these BLM activists will ever do. And that is, I think, a position that if you look at it, honestly, is incontrovertible.

Robinson 

I think it’s insane! I mean, I think Jefferson was very explicit—

Rufo 

You’re free to it. Who’s done—hold on—who’s done more for racial equality? Abraham Lincoln, or Black Lives Matter? You tell me.

Robinson 

Well, I would agree that I don’t think Black Lives Matter has achieved its political goals.

Rufo 

No, but answer the question: Who did more for racial equality? Abraham Lincoln or Black Lives Matter?

Robinson 

The consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation are pretty much unparalleled in United States history, and if you asked me who the greatest US presidents were, I’d probably say Lincoln and Roosevelt. 

Rufo 

So you would agree with me that Abraham Lincoln did more for racial equality than BLM? 

Robinson 

Again, it seems a way to not acknowledge that the country was founded by people who held Black people in chains and thought they were inferior. 

Rufo 

I acknowledge that. That’s a fact. That’s a historical fact. I don’t see how anyone would deny that.

Robinson 

But you said they weren’t racist! And now you say it’s a historical fact. 

Rufo 

No, you made two different claims. One is claimed that they had chattel slavery and many of the founding fathers owned slaves. Yes, obviously that’s abominable.

Robinson 

And they thought Black people were inferior. 

Rufo 

But to say that they are racist is a different claim because you’re taking an ideological term and then back imposing it on them to discredit their work advancing equality. And so I think that I reject it in a linguistic frame, while acknowledging the factual basis that there was slavery.

Robinson 

“The blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” That’s Jefferson. Is that not racist? 

Rufo 

I disagree with that statement. I don’t know what you want me to say. 

Robinson 

I want you to say it’s racist. 

Rufo 

Saying “oh, we’re going to cherry pick one sentence.” 

Robinson 

I want you to tell the truth. I want you to tell the truth about this man.

Rufo 

Oh, here’s a question for you. I’ll turn it back on you. Jefferson held slaves and it’s abominable. And I, of course, reject it. But do you think Jefferson advanced the cause of racial equality, or did not? 

Robinson 

I don’t think he advanced the cause of racial equality. 

Rufo 

Frederick Douglass would disagree with you. And I thought you’ve delegated your moral intuitions to Douglas. Douglass was quite a fan. Martin Luther King was also quite a fan.

Robinson 

I don’t think Jefferson advanced the cause of racial equality. I think he could have if he’d freed his slaves, but he didn’t. In fact, he entered into a very questionable sexual relationship with—

Rufo 

Well, hold on. But because Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King were great admirers of Jefferson, you’re telling me that you have a better—

Robinson 

I admire the Declaration of Independence, but I think it would be absurd to say that Jefferson advanced racial equality. The man was racist, and it’s a shame. And that doesn’t mean there’s nothing positive in his writing. But he was even told at the time. Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man, wrote to him and said, “How can you keep my brothers in bondage while you write stirring words about liberty?” And Jefferson just didn’t reply.

Rufo 

I agree with that. 100%. I mean, the contradiction is absolutely there. But what I’m asking is a different question. And Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, many modern scholars would say that, ultimately, Jefferson is a tragic and flawed figure for those reasons that you outlined, obviously, but ultimately, his legacy as a human being in his life, and in his work, was to set a framework for the allowance of equality, and that he moved the nation and the world, in fact, towards racial equality, despite those things, despite his own personal conduct, despite his flaws, despite his hypocrisy even. 

Robinson 

People’s legacies are very, very complicated. Actually, I think that one of the reasons that we now acknowledge that Jefferson’s legacy is so complicated—we didn’t really before the 1960s—were these people that you detest, the “critical race theorists,” were pointing out all the ugly, dark side of American history that really was not taught in the schools. And I’ve heard you mentioned that you grew up in California, where you were taught all the dark side of American history because progressives put it in the curriculum. I grew up in Florida. I went to Florida high schools, and I still got the classic “America’s the greatest country in the world, look at how wonderful we’ve been throughout all history.” And so I actually think that these radical scholars that, again, you really dislike, have made contributions to making the legacy of the supposedly great men of genius more complicated than it would have otherwise been.

Rufo 

Sure, I guess I can agree with you on that. Seems like a pretty solid idea—

Robinson 

So let’s teach some Critical Race Theory in schools! 

Rufo 

—but, certainly, history is complex. But you have to also understand: what is the purpose of education? And then you also have to make decisions about what’s in the curriculum in kindergarten through graduate school. And in graduate school, of course, let’s have all sorts of competing ideas. Let’s take mainstream ideas, radical ideas, and let’s take them apart. Let’s debate them. Let’s work on them. But what’s happening is that the kind of radical pessimistic view of America’s history has become the sole view in so many curriculum documents. America is presented not as a complex country that has been fraught with many issues, but ultimately, I think, moved towards these high ideals, but that America is fundamentally racist. America is exploitive. European, white Americans are oppressors because of their ancestry and because of their racial essence. That stuff is bad. And I think that even you would agree that teaching history just in that way is bad for kids. It’s bad for the country.

Robinson 

If that was what was happening, and to the extent that it is, I certainly disagree. I think where we disagree is whether this is an accurate characterization of what is taught. You have a fundamentally different view of the country than that of people you criticize, and I want to identify some of the differences. Recently on the CounterPoints podcast, Ryan Grim played you a clip of Tim Scott saying that racism and policing is a problem and that he’d experienced it himself. And you replied and basically said, that’s not true. You said: “I don’t think racism is a strong and powerful force in our society. It has been in the past. But I dispute the factual basis of Senator Scott’s speech.” You cited Roland Fryer’s study, and you said that “police do not show any disparate treatment of African Americans or other minorities. Senator Scott is doing a disservice with this narrative.” So, I mean, you don’t really think racism actually is very significant to the United States.

Rufo 

I don’t think that today, racism is a significant and driving force in America’s institutional life. I mean, I just don’t see it. I don’t think that that is correct. 

Robinson 

Well, you wouldn’t see it. 

Rufo 

But, you see data points to the contrary all the time. This is, in some ways, a trivial example, but I think it’s a good way to understand attitudes and behavior. Yelp decided to use a tag “Black owned business” to tag Black owned businesses on their platform so people could have that information as they’re searching. And they found that the businesses that were tagged as “Black owned businesses” experienced a huge and significant increase in web traffic and actual foot traffic. And so, if Americans were on average extremely racist, they would see this and be in the privacy of their own browser. They would say, “Oh, I don’t want to patronize this business.” But actually, the opposite is true. I think Americans, in general—of course, not all Americans, there’s always going to be prejudice and bigotry, etc.—are good-hearted people, and strive to treat everyone equally. And all things equal, they tried to help groups that have been, of course, historically discriminated against, such as African Americans as the important example. And I think institutionally, I always ask “Okay, well, systemic racism, what is it? How do you measure it and give me some examples?” And they go into these long statistical studies that demonstrate disparities. Okay, fine. There are some disparities.

Robinson

There’s a lot.

Rufo

But what is the causal mechanism? How do you measure it? How do you reduce it to systemic racism? Systemic racism is like an abstract concept that has emotional and rhetorical power. But when you actually try to give it social scientific scrutiny, it dissipates and disappears. There are other explanations, of course. But again, I do not think that the major institutions of the United States are animated and driven by racism. That’s not true. I think you know that’s not true.

Robinson 

Well, for example, you cited the Roland Fryer study, which you said was one of the best studies. They put in some pretty sophisticated controls to try and find out: are Black people, in fact, treated differently by the police? And they found—this is quite controversial—that in terms of shootings Black people are not treated differently. But when you said, “the police don’t show any disparate treatment for African Americans,” actually, that’s misrepresenting the study. Because they said the opposite. They said that on every kind of non-lethal use of force— slapping people, pushing them into walls or onto the ground, handcuffing them without an arrest, drawing a weapon or using a pepper spray—”there are racial differences, sometimes quite large, in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors.”

Rufo 

Sure. And so your explanation is that therefore the explanation for that is because the police are racist? Is that what you’re claiming?

Robinson 

Yes, that police who might think of themselves as being completely fair might have biases, where they tend to be more likely to rough up a young Black man, to throw them against the hood of a car. 

Rufo 

Have you spent a lot of time with police officers as they’re doing their job, as they’re in the line of duty?

Robinson 

I’ve spent some time with police officers, and I know you have too.

Rufo 

And that’s why I say that. And so I think that, again, the actual, real experience is quite important. I’ve spent a lot of time embedded with police officers. Some are great, some are not as great, obviously. It’s like any profession, there are good ones and bad ones. I’d say mostly very professional and very good. I’ve also spent a lot of time in poor neighborhoods, from all different racial backgrounds, including three years in a public housing project in Memphis, Tennessee. The actual experience of police officers in those communities is materially quite different than in a majority white suburban area. And I think that you could say that there’s a there’s a level of physical aggression, as the argument you’re making, that is different, perhaps, in these kinds of communities. But there are many other explanations for why that might be the case, besides the police are racist, defund the police. I think that one of the most important questions is: Do you think that there are racial disparities in criminality, meaning the commissioning of crimes or frequency of committing crimes? 

Robinson 

Yes, but this is what sophisticated social scientists like Fryer do: they try and control for differences in crime and say “given a particular encounter with police, are police more likely to use force?” That’s what they found. Now, you’re talking about your exposure to the police. They all think of themselves as great, very professional, or whatever. The people who disagree with you are the majority of Black Americans in public opinion polls. Nearly 90% of black adults say that Black adults are treated less fairly than whites in the criminal punishment system. A minority of white people, but a majority of Black people, say that Black people are treated worse in stores, banks, job applications, and by landlords. Nearly a third of Black Americans have said that they experienced unfair treatment by police within the past year. There are huge gaps in black between black confidence in the police and white confidence in the police. And so, it seems to me like maybe the experience of Black people with police is a little different from your own. When you poll Black Americans, they have pretty low confidence.

Rufo 

Sure, of course there is. 

Robinson 

And you think they’re kind of delusional about that.

Rufo

I didn’t say that.

Robinson

Well, they must be.

Rufo 

I think there is a vested social interest in improving those numbers. I think it’s really important to have a good relationship between the police and the communities where they work, of all different racial backgrounds. And I don’t know the specific numbers, but they sound about right. And certainly that is something that we should improve, but then the question becomes, “Okay, well, what do we do about it?” BLM and the radical left offered a solution in 2020 that was followed by a number of police departments. “We need de-policing, we need to defund the police, we need the police to pull back.” And what we’ve seen is then a great paradox, and this is evidenced in the social science literature. My colleague Heather Mac Donald has written extensively about this. You have this problem of trust, which I concede to your point, I agree is a problem. But then what do you do about it?

Robinson 

Well, you didn’t agree when you saw Tim Scott. You said he’s making it up. 

Rufo 

No, I said perceptions of trust different than the actual material measurements of behavior. 

Robinson 

Okay, so they’re wrong? They’re wrong that they’ve been unfairly treated. 

Rufo 

But the question is, well, what do you do about it? Do you actually have proactive policing? Do you have broken window style policing? Do you have community policing that actually has officers on foot patrol, making relationships? That’s the kind of law enforcement that I support. And I think that it can improve those perceptions, attitudes, but the left says decarceration, policing, defund the police, push the police back—

Robinson 

Oversight: making sure complaints are actually dealt with. 

Rufo 

And we’ve seen—and again, Roland Fryer and Heather Mac Donald have done this, and other number of other scholars—anytime you say you want less police presence in those communities, those communities see skyrocketing rates of violence, and especially homicide. So, that’s a conundrum and a big social science problem.

Robinson 

When you say race really does not matter anymore, we still see statistics on maternal mortality, experiences with police, the kinds of schools people go to, whether families can afford to send kids to college, the wealth gap, rates of cancer, whether you inherit a house, whether you’re likely to get an apartment application accepted, and these vary by race. It seems to me very strange to say as you do that Tim Scott’s perceptions of the facts are wrong, and that actually, racism is a thing of the past.

Rufo 

Well, you said at the beginning that I’m arguing that race doesn’t matter. Of course I’m not arguing that. I haven’t said that. I said that race is not a causal determining force in American life. It doesn’t animate American institutions. I think that is absolutely true. 100% true.

Robinson 

But racial inequalities are very real. 

Rufo 

Of course, and I’ve actually written, for example, even a policy paper for the Heritage Foundation on why I believe that policies associated with critical race theory have actually ended up deepening racial inequalities and will continue to do so in the future. And in fact, they ignore the most important variables, which are the background variables, which are the more rigorous explanatory variables people like Robert Rector and others have done in this work. And so I reject this idea that any disparity is automatically evidence of racism or systemic racism as an animating force in American life, and the solution to those disparities is to do DEI training and seek to reduce that. There’s no evidence that’s true.

Robinson 

If you take, for example, the wealth gap, it’s existed continuously since the time of slavery.

Rufo 

Yes, of course. And I think that the wealth gap is absolutely part of the historical legacy of racism. You and I would agree on that question. But it’s a separate question from: is racism the driving and animating force behind American policy today? Those are different questions that are conflated by people on the left side of the spectrum to make a rhetorical point that is not actually a solid, historical, social scientific, and logical point. 

Robinson 

Well, as long as we can both agree that the racial wealth gap is severe, causes the existence of a certain kind of white privilege, and ought to be redressed, then I think we will be on the same page. I suspect you wouldn’t, in fact, put it that way…

I really have to get to the laws on critical race theory that you have helped write. You have said that these laws essentially just prohibit making essentialist statements about people on the basis of race. They vary, obviously, from state to state. I want to give you an example of a statement, and you can tell me whether it crosses the line here. If I were to say: “Whites are not putting in enough effort to re-educate themselves out of racial ignorance. White people believe they have so little to learn. Racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans. The disease of racism permeates a whole body politic.” “Why does white America delude itself? And how does it rationalize the evil that it retains?” I assume that would be a pretty clear-cut violation.

Rufo 

I think, first and foremost, that’s a false statement. I think that it is factually untrue. I think it’s a kind of political agitprop statement. In my view, in K through 12 Public Schools, the curriculum and the values that they transmit should be determined by the people through their elected legislators, through their school boards, through their representatives and through the political process. And I think that we have an abiding interest in restricting false inflammatory racial essentialism and scapegoating, no matter who it’s directed against. And so, as such, I think that I would say that the public is well within its right to say that whiteness is not a disease that has infected the body politic. I think that’s the kind of rhetoric that should be out of the public schools.

Robinson 

Well, that was Martin Luther King, so we can agree that he shouldn’t be in.

Rufo 

No, you’re saying, should that be advanced as the ideology of the public schools? If you have that statement, and then you’re saying, “Hey, this is the statement of Martin Luther King,” this is a statement of someone else—

Robinson 

So he could come and give a speech in a school and say that?

Rufo 

Is that the official policy of the school? It should not be. But if it’s in the context of teaching a history lesson, it can be something that is subjected to rigorous debate. I disagree with that.

Robinson 

What if the teacher says “I agree with Martin Luther King”? 

Rufo 

That’s part of a debate. And that’s a teacher’s personal opinion. Obviously, a teacher is entitled to his or her opinion of—

Robinson 

Not much of a debate if they’re fired. 

Rufo 

But what we are saying is something that’s quite different and quite a different point altogether. You’re saying that, “should a teacher advance this idea” is very different from “should a teacher teach it in a historical context as a statement made by an important historical figure.”

Robinson 

Yes, but the teacher’s going to be terrified that they’re advancing ideas by discussing them.

Rufo 

No, that’s also like saying the previous statement that you made. You made a statement that Jefferson said that the Black race is something, I can’t remember the exact words.

Robinson 

Inferior in body and mind.

Rufo 

Can you teach that as the official position of the public school? Of course not. I would reject that. I would say that should be opposed. You shouldn’t teach that as the official policy. But can you teach it in the context of, Jefferson said this, let’s take a look at it. Of course you can. And so you’re trying to make a rhetorical point by conflating the official position of a school, the kind of values that it’s advancing, and the historical comments or statements of relevant figures that can then be subject to analysis within a curriculum. It’s clever, I’ll give you that, it’s clever. 

Robinson 

Just to conclude, then, the correct position here is that critical race theory should be taught in schools, but neutrally. And kids should be taught critical thinking and critical evaluation of critical race theory.

Rufo 

Should they be taught critical race theory in schools in the sense of the discipline of critical race theory, or in the sense of the pedagogy of critical race theory? 

Robinson 

Assign a Derrick Bell story and then ask them to discuss it. 

Rufo 

I would have actually no problem with that. I’ve read all of Derrick Bell’s work, and I would have no problem in let’s say a college classroom if Derrick Bell is part of the curriculum and is subjected to debate.

Robinson 

How about high school?

Rufo 

Maybe in high school you could have something, but again, there’s no restriction in any state on including that Martin Luther King quote or a quotation from Derrick Bell. The restriction is simply that you cannot advance, inculcate, or indoctrinate students into believing, for example, believing what might lead to conclude that one race is inherently superior to another, that one race is inherently defective. And so you’re trying to bring in an example, but you’re not reading the law right, and not reading the actual classroom practice.

Robinson 

Well, we’ll find out if I’m reading the law right by what happens to teachers. And we’ll be monitoring that. Because a lot of teachers have said that they feel incapable of teaching even things like Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” So, we will see if this, in fact, does do what you said and have a very small impact, or if it has a very large impact. We’ll find out. 

Rufo 

Do it! And I would propose to you this, and I would agree that that’s a good experiment. Take that Jefferson quote, take that Martin Luther King quote, team up with some teachers in Florida, teach it in a public school, and see what happens. I think that if they teach it in a way that doesn’t advance it as their official position, but actually uses it as part of a robust historical discussion, they’d be well within the law. I think that they would be applauded and certainly not restricted.

Robinson 

Well, we shall find out. I myself am going to go back to worrying about the issues that I care about, such as climate change, minimum wage, et cetera.


Listen to the full conversation on the Current Affairs podcast. Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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