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Chris Rufo Offers No Good Answers
The conservative culture warrior pretends that we fixed racism in the US.
I recently reviewed Chris Rufo’s new book for Reason magazine. It attracted the ire of the man himself, who sicced his half a million Twitter followers on me leading to discussions of my physiognomy, ethnicity, and sexuality, among other things. But that’s hardly notable among the nouveau wave of terminally-online, right-wing pundits who have built successful careers off stirring up old hatreds.
While my book review focused on Rufo’s mendacity, I didn’t have the word count to include a few additional thoughts about the hollowness of what he offers his readers on the subject of racism. Inasmuch as Rufo is right that some radicals on the Left are too quick to inject race into every discussion, he is guilty of the opposite problem, denialism. While there are those who are unwilling to admit any progress on America’s original sin of racism, there are those, like Rufo, who deny that any meaningful amount of racism exists in America today.
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Rufo dedicates a section of the book to the late law professor Derrick Bell whose story illustrates the way in which some left-wing radicals have so lost hope in the American experiment that they cannot admit that we have made any meaningful progress in mitigating racism. Despite mentoring a young law student at Harvard named ‘Barry,’ who supported Bell’s stand for more diversity in the professoriate, Bell refused to see his former student’s election as President of the United States in 2008 as a more than a token sign of racial progress.
I think Bell was wrong; Barack Obama’s election was a meaningful marker in the struggle towards full racial equality. The median American of each of the last three generations has been less racist than the last. Still, Bell was less wrong than Rufo makes him out to be. In Rufo’s account, he’s little more than an embittered, irrational crank.***
Today, Bell’s critique of liberal triumphalism on election night 2008 feels prescient given the recrudescence of racism in American politics in the decade and a half since. While a majority of white Americans voted for a Black man in 2008, that was promptly followed in 2016 by the election of a man whose family business had been sued in 1972 for excluding minorities from apartment rentals. If Barack Obama’s election represented progress away from the segregated norms of the mid-twentieth century, then Donald Trump’s election was a counter-signal that less had changed than the exultants of 2008 had once hoped.
Rufo has been an enabler in that revanchist project. His stated goal has been to take the concept of “critical race theory,” hollow it of its original meaning, and then pack into it “the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” Doing so has functionally expanded the definition of “critical race theory” to include any meaningful discussion of racism whatsoever. Americans who are upset about the civil rights progress of the last fifty years are now able to cloak their racism as merely a critique of CRT. (See also, those who have long wanted to push LGBQT folks back into the closet and are now using the specter of trans “groomers” to disguise their rather straightforward homophobia.)
Rufo and his political allies have since pushed for school book bans that allow even one parent to contest the inclusion of books on racial subjects. While not every book ban supporter is a racist, the effect of imposing the new book censorship regime has been to enable those who are racist to remove any book that attempts to grapple with America’s legacy of racism, many of which have no connection to CRT.
All of this to say, Bell’s dourness in 2008 feels far less incredible in 2023. As he wrote in a 1992 essay on “Racial Realism,” Bell argued that “legal [civil] rights could do little more than bring about the cessation of one form of discriminatory conduct, which soon appeared in a more subtle though no less discriminatory form.” I suspect the late professor would be vigorously nodding right now.
Once you understand Bell’s biography, his pessimism starts to make more sense. Bell was one of the NAACP’s most active lawyers in the fight to desegregate public schools in the South, doing so at a time when that job meant facing the prospect of real, physical danger. NAACP workers were being murdered for their work! Bell walked the walk, so it’s worth taking his decision to eventually walk away seriously.
Why did Bell do so? In part because he realized the limits of using courts to change entrenched social systems. As he put it, “court orders mandating racial balance may be…educationally advantageous, irrelevant, or even disadvantageous.” (The emphasis is Bell’s.) While a full reading of Bell on the subject is merited, the short version is that Bell realized that the effort to forcibly integrate schools was both unlikely to work and could actually harm black families who might not want their kids bussed across town to hostile, previously whites-only schools.
That was a controversial thing for Bell to say, both at the time and today! Ironically, a more nuanced conservative thinker than Rufo might find much to agree with Bell in regards to the fundamental limits of legal mandates as well as the desirability of school choice for families. And given the fact that many public schools are even *more* segregated today than half a century ago, Bell’s critique also remains noteworthy. So while Bell’s pessimism went too far — to the point of denying nearly any meaningful progress in race relations whatsoever — it’s understandable why that would be so.
By contrast, Rufo expresses his confidence that we have all but solved for racism in America. “Racism, by almost any measure, has declined in the United States….The laws have guaranteed equal treatment since the passage of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. Racist attitudes among whites dropped precipitously following that time period, with virtually no opposition to interracial marriage, integrated schools, and integrated neighborhoods by the mid-1990s. … Finally, in 2008, the United States elected its first black president, Barack Obama, which, at the time, was heralded as a racial watershed.” (120)
Rufo’s not entirely wrong. Overt, legal racism has indeed declined. Yet this acknowledgement of progress serves a specific rhetorical purpose for Rufo. It allows him to deny that contemporary complaints about racism have any merit, which then lets him dismiss complaints about police brutality and so on. Antiracists must be wrong, even sinister, because [gestures vaguely] we already fixed racism a long time ago. Indeed, for Rufo it’s the people who continue to complain about racism that are the *real* racists!
However, even the briefest review of the examples Rufo provides of racial progress reveals once again his penchant for exaggerated claims. For example, consider his claim that “by the mid-1990s” there was “virtually no opposition to interracial marriage.” It turns out that Pew has been polling the public about their support/opposition to interracial marriage since 1961. And far from “virtually no opposition,” the data shows that it’s not until 1997 that a majority of Americans approved of interracial marriage.
Unless “virtually no” now means “about half,” Rufo is wildly exaggerating how quickly approval for interracial marriages rose. In any case, I take relatively little comfort from the fact that when the artist Seal was singing his breakout hit of 1995, “Kiss from a Rose,” more than half of Americans were still quite particular about the skin color of the people giving and receiving that kiss.
So while there has been progress in this regard, should we really be patting ourselves on the back simply because less than thirty years ago a majority of Americans passed the bare minimum test for not being grossly racist? I was a teenager then. Heck, when I graduated from high school in 2003, a third of Americans still disapproved of interracial marriage. This isn’t the distant past!
But what’s more dangerous about Rufo’s naive optimism is that he completely misses the ways in which racism remains embedded in social and political institutions. Racism is not merely an individual problem, like all the little old ladies locking their car doors when they see “urban youths” or racist homeowners gunning down black teenagers looking for help. Racism can also be baked into our norms and structures, like the way that policing strategies for Black communities in the mid-20th century have persisted into the 21st century. Which is why, for example, that although the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was not an individual act of racism, it was still a downstream effect of a system of overpolicing rooted in racist intent and with a long history.
And even in cases when racist institutions have been reformed and racist structures have been rebuilt, there is an inertia to racism, a way in which the harms of the past compound and persist. The classic example is that of red-lining, when government agencies compelled mortgage lenders to discriminate against homebuyers in majority minority neighborhoods. While formal redlining has since been eradicated, the effects of that past practice persist given that home equity is about half of household net worth. This prevented many black families from getting on the first rung of the property ladder, and then kept black neighborhoods from rising in value at the same rate as white neighborhoods. That history has had a hangover effect, contributing to the way that black households today continue to inherit less and have lower home equity than their white counterparts.
Nothing like that shows up in Rufo’s work. By his account, we fixed racism with some laws in the 1960s, then we updated our attitudes by the 1990s, and now the only racism worth talking about is the reverse racism of left-wing movements masquerading as civil rights movements. But as someone raised in a still profoundly racist Southern community, and as a close observer of the politics of the 2000s and 2010s, Rufo’s depiction of the situation is entirely unconvincing to me.
It also ignores the gritty work of antiracism that was necessary at every stage of the process. If interracial marriage is now accepted, it’s because untold thousands of interracial couples endured the abuse of intolerant families and hateful communities right up until the present. If (some) neighborhoods are no longer segregated, it’s because of multitudes of Black families enduring the hostility of their white neighbors. If workplaces are more diverse than ever, it’s because generations of Black workers put up with hostile work environments. And all of that was done despite the naysaying of folks with mindsets not unlike Rufo’s, those who were equally quick to clap themselves on the back for how far we’ve come and to criticize those who actually did any of the work to get us there.
Rufo’s racial denialism contributes to the very problem he’s ostensibly trying to solve. He has no real answers for those earnestly seeking to grapple with the problem of racism in America. Imagine you’re a young person who, whether by personal experience or through research, believes that racism is a real problem. You’re looking for someone who takes the matter seriously, and offers realistic solutions. You might even be open to conservative ideas on the topic. Yet Rufo offers you nothing but a denial. In fact, his take is so unconvincing that you’re half inclined to give the folks he complains so much about a chance. At least *they* acknowledge that racism is real, and then some.
In that perverse sense, Christopher Rufo might be Critical Race Theory’s top recruiter. By functionally expanding the definition of CRT to include almost any discussion of racism in US history, and then by plugging the issue into the hyperpolarized partisanship filter that dictates so much of current US politics, Rufo has increased the likelihood that anyone who is not already a conservative is at least marginally more open to CRT. And if they don’t really know what that is, well, then neither do the mass of people opposed to it.
*** As it so happens, both Rufo and Bell have a Harvard connection, although that doesn’t stop Rufo from throwing little barbs at Bell, like saying, “He was, by his own admission, unqualified according to traditional standards” to teach at Harvard. That is a bizarre way of framing the fact that many of the standard pathways to an advanced legal career — such as graduating from an Ivy League school or clerking with a Supreme Court justice — were not readily available to a black man of Bell’s generation. Bear in mind, this is a man who was the son of a garbageman, who joined the armed forces a mere four years after the integration of the military, and who was the only Black graduate of his law school class! It’s especially rich coming from Rufo, the son of two lawyers, who simply claims a “masters from Harvard” in the book’s biographical materials while failing to mention that the degree was actually from the Harvard Extension School, which famous for its open enrollment policy in contrast to its more selective parent organization, Harvard College.
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