Republicans, spurred by an unlikely figure, see political promise in critical race theory
President Donald Trump was watching Fox News one evening last summer when a young conservative from Seattle appeared with an alarming warning, and a call to action.
Christopher Rufo said critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that most people had never heard of, had "pervaded every institution in the federal government."
"Critical race theory," Rufo said, "has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people."
Critical race theory holds that racism is systemic in the United States, not just a collection of individuals prejudices - an idea that feels obvious to some and offensive to others. Rufo alleged that efforts to inject awareness of systemic racism and White privilege, which grew more popular following the murder of George Floyd by police, posed a grave threat to the nation. It amounts, Rufo said, to a "cult indoctrination."
Spurred by Rufo, this complaint has come to dominate conservative politics. Debates over critical race theory are raging on school boards and in state legislatures. Fox News has increased its coverage and commentary on the issue. And Republicans see the issue as a central element of the case they will make to voters in next year's midterm elections, when control of Congress will be at stake.
It's the latest cultural wedge issue, playing out largely but not exclusively in debate over schools. At its core, it pits progressives who believe White people should be pushed to confront systemic racism and White privilege in America against conservatives who see these initiatives as painting all White people as racist. Progressives see racial disparities in education, policing and economics as a result of racism. Conservatives say analyzing these issues through a racial lens is, in and of itself, racist. Where one side sees a reckoning with America's past and present sins, another sees a misguided effort to teach children to hate America.
The reaction to Rufo's appearance that evening on Fox News was swift. The next day, Trump demanded action and, Rufo was soon in the White House for a meeting. Two days later, his budget chief issued a memo laying the groundwork for the federal government to cancel all diversity trainings. An executive order followed.
The order was rescinded by President Joe Biden on his first day of office, but in the months since, complaints voiced by Rufo and others have only grown louder. Rufo, 36, has become an in-demand activist who has advised, by his count, hundreds of leaders across the country, including school board candidates, state legislators and members of Congress.
Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite - though not all of Rufo's details hold up to scrutiny.
He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory.
"We have successfully frozen their brand-'critical race theory'-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category," Rufo wrote. "The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.' We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans."
Rufo said in an interview that he understands why his opponents often point to this tweet, but said that the approach described is "so obvious."
"If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign," he said. Rufo says his own role has been to translate research into programs about race into the political arena.
"I basically took that body of criticism, I paired it with breaking news stories that were shocking and explicit and horrifying, and made it political," he said. "Turned it into a salient political issue with a clear villain."
Among the GOP base, the issue has caught fire. During a recent speech in North Carolina, Trump's comments opposing critical race theory were the largest applause line of the evening.
Trump has told advisers he was surprised at how much traction the issue has gotten on the right and wants to include comments about it in future speeches. He has drafted on the topic as well, spokesman Jason Miller said. "The Democrats are taking the bait and keeping wokeness alive."
Former vice president Mike Pence also recently raised the matter in Hillsborough, N.H., during a speech, drawing applause. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has regularly brought it up with donors and supporters. NBC News counted 165 local and national groups battling against race- and gender-based lessons.
A national group called Parents Defending Education is collecting stories and filing complaints with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. The group also conducted a poll that posed questions about various race-based lessons using terms employed by opponents and publicized results as: "Americans Overwhelmingly Reject 'Woke' Race and Gender Policies in K-12 Education." The survey also asked voters if implementation of these ideas would impact their vote in school board elections.
Tim Phillips, who leads the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity, said he, too, has been taken aback at how many Republican and conservative activists raise the issue unprompted as he travels the country to meet with activists in places such as Pittsburgh, Dallas and Augusta, Ga. Phillips said his group is not planning to focus on the issue, but that the issue is energizing many to get involved in politics for the first time.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently polled on the topic and found that it could be a potent issue with voters, said a Republican strategist involved in Senate races. This person said the issue ranks below the economy, taxes, government spending and energy policy but that Republicans trying to win the senate will use the issue, along with other cultural ones, to paint Democrats as "leftist and extreme." The strategist said that some voters did not know precisely what it was - but viewed it as part of a broader cultural shift they feared.
"The question is how much it actually drives voters," the strategist said. "Is it really affecting anyone's life and is it going to move actual votes?'
Any reticence is a mistake, said Russell Vought, director of Trump's White House Office of Management and Budget and the man who drafted and published Trump's executive order. Since leaving office, Vought has been working behind the scenes to help advance state legislation and advising Republican candidates to embrace the issue.
He now heads a group called the Center for Renewing America and says fighting critical race theory is the group's top mission. He's working to help state legislators draft and promote bills on the subject as well as crafting political strategy.
The battle, Vought said, is partly within the Republican Party. He said some GOP political consultants are wrongly advising lawmakers to stay away from the issue.
"If you think you need to avoid these issues because you think they are too risky, then you are not aware of where your people are," he said. "There's a good chunk of the Republican Party that wants to avoid issues that are hard to talk about and this one potentially is hard to talk about because you're dealing with race and you want to be very careful about how you do it."
For now, there's considerable action on the state level. Idaho, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma have passed bills banning teaching of certain race-related issues in schools and elsewhere, with legislation pending in many other states. This month, the Florida State Board of Education banned teaching that racism is "embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons." Another bill is under consideration in South Carolina.
Republican Keith Ammon, a New Hampshire state representative who has spearheaded the effort to ban critical race theory there, said Rufo has been helpful. "He has a way of distilling down information to make it digestible to the public, which is a very useful skill," Ammon said.
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Rufo is something of an unexpected activist as he urges states on. A California native, he worked for years as a documentary filmmaker, with films broadcast on PBS. In recent years, his work has grown more political, and more conservative. Today, he lives in the Seattle area, where he has campaigned for a more enforcement-oriented policy toward homeless people living on the city streets. He mounted a short-lived campaign for Seattle City Council before dropping out, saying he and his family were being harassed. He has worked with conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and the Discovery Institute in Seattle.
In an interview, Rufo said he turned to reporting about two years ago. He refers to himself as an investigative reporter and often labels his posts on Twitter, where he has more than 169,000 followers, with the word "SCOOP," as reporters sometimes do.
He says that in recent months he has advised hundreds of lawmakers, and this month he published a "briefing book" on critical race theory debates including incendiary comments from anti-racism figures, advice on how to win the "language war" by using terms such as "race-based Marxism," a compilation of anecdotes from schools and elsewhere, polling data and suggestions for legislative action.
In March, he participated in a forum for New Hampshire lawmakers, where he advised them to use specific examples to make their case against critical race theory.
"Once you actually lay down the specifics, say, 'Hey, I support diversity, I support inclusion, I support equality, but this is what they're doing in practice,' and then make your opponents defend those specific incidents," he said. "I can provide a range of reporting."
Rufo said he began reporting on this issue a year ago, when he got a tip that the city of Seattle had invited White employees to a program about "internalized racial superiority" and their "complicity in the system of white supremacy."
That led to a flood of tips and documents about similar programs across the country, he said. "I had naively thought this is probably a crazy Seattle thing."
Then Tucker Carlson invited Rufo to deliver his show's opening monologue with him. Rufo saw it as a unique opportunity to lay out his reporting on the federal government and to ask Trump directly to issue an executive order.
"People don't get what they want because they don't ask for what they want," he said. "I rehearsed in my mind the line as I was driving to the studio: 'I call on President Trump to immediately issue an executive order . . .'"
The next morning he got a call from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows saying that Trump had seen the show and wanted to know more. Within days, officials across the government were canceling already scheduled events.
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Some of the allegations Rufo laid out that evening are not supported by the evidence he produces, and others are stretched beyond the facts.
He pointed to three examples of what he said were woke politics gone amok inside the federal government - at the Treasury Department, Sandia National Laboratories and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Treasury Department, he said, had hired a diversity consultant named Howard Ross who "told Treasury employees essentially that America was a fundamentally white supremacist country and, I quote, 'Virtually all White people uphold the system of racism and white superiority.'"
Rufo said that Ross was "essentially denouncing the country" and asking White Treasury employees "to accept their White privilege, accept their white racial superiority." A post about this training on Rufo's website is headlined, "Treasury Department tells employees all white people are racist."
To support these conclusions, Rufo posted a 33-page document prepared for the Treasury on his website, but the document does not say that all White people are racist or that America is a fundamentally white supremacist country. It does not ask White people to accept "their white racial superiority."
The document does advise participants not to "shy away from language like 'Whiteness,' 'racism,' 'white supremacy' and 'allyship.'" It includes, as part of a list of resources, a link to a YouTube video of Robin DiAngelo, author of "White Fragility." The document summarizes the video by saying she "discusses the roots of White supremacy, of which she asserts virtually all White people, regardless of how 'woke' they are, contribute to racism."
A Treasury Department spokesperson did not dispute the authenticity of the document but said Rufo's characterization of it was "completely false." The online, town hall-style event was for Treasury staff to gather after the Floyd murder, the spokesperson said, and was meant as an opportunity "to have meaningful discussions with one another and build trust and understanding."
She said that participation in this event was voluntary but thousands of employees chose to attend. The agency continues to host diversity and inclusion events for employees across the department, she said.
Rufo's second target on Fox News was Sandia National Laboratories, a contractor to the Energy Department that works on nuclear weapons and national security. The lab sent White men in senior leadership positions to a four-day training program. Some of Rufo's characterizations appear to be accurate, but others do not.
Documents Rufo posted show that sessions focused heavily on White and male privilege, and the company that sponsored the program confirmed as much. One page lists more than 60 examples of White privilege such as "not being rejected for a loan," assuming local schools are of good quality and being accepted into a country club.
In one session, participants appear to have been encouraged to volunteer assumptions about White men. Rufo noted that phrases mentioned included highly negative terms such as "KKK," "mass killings" and "Aryan Nation." But many other words were also on the page, including "patriotic," "baseball," "football," "capitalist," "Founding Fathers," "boss" and "beer."
Rufo also alleged that the program "forced (participants) to write letters of apology to women and people of color," but there is no evidence of that.
Participants were asked to write statements "directed at women, people of color and other groups" about the meaning of the event. Several people wrote that they had a better appreciation for other people's perspectives or that they came to understand that they had privileges others do not, though most did not apologize. At least one person did, saying he was sorry "for the times I have not stood up for you to create a safe place" and "for the time I've spent not thinking about you."
The goal of the event was to create a safe space where White men could talk openly about their experiences and feelings, said Wayne Pignolet, the chief operating officer of White Men as Full Diversity Partners, the company that sponsored Sandia's program. Ultimately, he said, this will lead to more inclusive leaders and workplaces.
"I think a lot of it is creating enough safety to work through whatever resistance they have," he said. "We don't 'reeducate' or force anyone to do anything, nor do we shame or blame people. . . . We help the create cultures where people feel like they can come to work and be valued."
This program was not mandatory, but team supervisors, managers and other senior officials were required to choose an unconscious bias training to attend from a list of several options, an Energy Department spokeswoman said.
Rufo did not reply directly when asked to identify what, in the documents he has posted, supports his specific allegations about Treasury and Sandia, such as that Treasury employees were told to "accept their white racial superiority" or that Sandia workers were forced to apologize. He said the answer could be found in the original source materials but did not specify where.
The third example Rufo cited on Fox News related to the FBI and workshops it apparently planned on intersectionality, which looks at categorizations such as race, class and gender and how they create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination.
Rufo called intersectionality "a hard left academic theory that reduces people to a network of racial, gender and sexual orientation identities and intersect in complex ways and determine whether you are an oppressor or oppressed." He added that White straight men are "obviously . . . at the top of this pyramid of evil."
The flier made none of those points. It spoke about how various identities "combine and multiply to result in unique forms of discrimination." The FBI declined to comment.
Since last summer, Rufo has focused much of his attention on schools. He often mentions a district in Cupertino, Calif., where a controversial lesson about race and identity was prepared for third-graders.
Information about the program was sent home to parents. As laid out, the program was supposed to ask students to choose "social identities," including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, family structure, religion and level of ability or disability. It then identified certain attributes as being part of the "dominant culture" that was considered "normal."
Students were to then identify which of their personal attributes hold power and privilege and which do not.
Rufo published the seven-page slide deck sent to parents. He said the lesson was delivered as laid out in the slides, alleging that students "were forced to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities."
However, Jerry Liu, president of the Cupertino Union School Board, said the program was canceled after parents raised concerns.
"The lesson provided to the 3rd-grade students was not age-appropriate and not part of the district's curriculum," Liu said in an email. "Classroom instruction with these materials never went forward."