Chris Rufo’s thoughts on race and antiracism are provocative and important. I am reading them and letting them change me, though hopefully they won’t radicalize me like they have many. This post is not written with SEO in mind, it is more stream-of-consciousness.
Full disclosure: I went to high school with Chris Rufo. I have absolutely no idea as to whether Chris was involved and am by no means implying that he was, but at Rio Americano High School there was even a Caucasian Culture Club (CCC rather than KKK–white supremacy light). That will give you a sense of the place. It was a largely affluent suburban high school in Sacramento, California, where I later taught for six months in my late twenties. As a high school student, I drove my minivan to school, while most cars were top notch and new.
I have been thinking about the anti-CRT movement a lot. This especially since reading the NYT’s opinion article that “antiracism has never been the answer.” I agree that the mismanagement of funds by Ibram X. Kendi is problematic, and that his Black-white binary is a binary when really life is more complicated. But as Jonathan Haidt notes, it is easier to organize conservatives rather than liberals. (His argument is complicated and persuasive, and beyond the scope of this informal post. I think he would argue like Rufo, though Haidt is progressive, that we are losing cognitive diversity and classical liberalism in America–read his book The Righteous Mind.)
Antiracism is a Crucial Lens for our Democracy
However, this does not mean that antiracism isn’t a crucial lens for our democracy. This is just my opinion here, but we get into trouble is when we think that antiracism represents objective “truth.” This is what many proponents argue, myself too, especially in recent years. I still sometimes argue this–I’m a work in progress and in some cases antiracism seems like the most important lens for a given situation.
(I’m recovering from getting a BA, a teaching certificate, and two MA’s from the University of California System, plus a Fulbright in Russia.) I am a scholar at heart but will not pursue a PhD because universities in the US don’t value cognitive diversity. (Not even in Florida since you can’t even discuss gay people there, though they assuredly exist.)
The problem with Kendi and Boston University is one of people thinking that all it takes is money to solve a problem. Furthermore, his books, which I loved in the past, during the period for which they were written, act like they are objective. This is extremely dangerous. They need extreme contexualization in the post-Floyd era. Really, they are a narrative from a specific lens. Before that lens was normalized after George Floyd’s death, it was not problematic that they took the tone that they did. Similarly, Rufo’s lens is appropriate for a social justice rich atmosphere, but they may seem even more extremist when we have course corrected.
What’s Wrong with a Multi-Polar Lens?
Maybe it’s my schizoaffective disorder… but why is it that, even though we are in a diverse, multicultural society, we think that there should be one lens in our society. Why do we think there should be one lens per person? Literature is what gets us beyond this trap of thinking that there is one version of reality. Liberals have taken out excerpts of books that are “problematic,” and conservatives have banned countless books. This freaks out liberals, without us realizing that a lot of these books aren’t fostering cognitive diversity either.
Why can’t we read a lens like that of Kendi’s with reverence and understanding without adopting it as our own? Liberals don’t seem able to do this. Why can’t we as progressives read Rufo and see if he doesn’t have a point (which is what I’m trying to do here).
Why do lenses threaten us when democracy depends on cognitive diversity?
For a long time this inability of others to hold multiple viewpoints has broken me even as I was taught this inability specifically throughout my higher education career. In undergraduate and graduate school, I repeatedly learned the same critical race theory lens as if it were objective reality. Yes, cognitive diversity would have been desirable. Yes it was unquestionably Marxist. But this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have learned critical race theory. Its risk was ahistoricism, and liberal fundamentalism, that didn’t acknowledge that we had made racial progress since the time of slavery.
Is the Anti-CRT Movement Objective?
Both conservative and liberal radicalism are destroying our democracy.
I just started Chris Rufo’s book on critical race theory. Its preface describes his own personal experience in Seattle of being harassed and maligned and threatened by the radical left here. I myself has suffered maltreatment at the hands of antiracists, publicly shamed on an email chain and excommunicated from a group. Rufo was even more harassed, threatened, and maligned, and this for the public ideological battle that liberals often wage against people who disagree with them. This is shameful. I deplore liberal treatment of conservatives most of the time.
However, despite significant ego-bruising, confusion, and hurt, I didn’t become a radical right-wing activist. Instead, I paused and reflected on where I come across as entitled. Furthermore, as a result of my experience, I now have (tempered) empathy for unfairly harassed white people. It also softened my antiracism and inspires my quest for a more flexible version of antiracism that doesn’t demonize me for having an opinion that differs from orthodoxy.
I didn’t start denying the existence of white supremacy and the role of history and how we tell history in maintaining it. I didn’t start filtering out white supremacy awareness when I look at the world.
I merely learned antiracism was a valuable lens rather than the only viable reality.
What if Radicalism is the Problem?
Chris Rufo, in his book, says his similar exchange radicalized him. To me, this hints an investment of a wounded ego and a personalization in his work, though I could be wrong. It hints that there might not be purely objective approaches in his argument. In a way, Rufo and Kendi read like inverses of one another. They are about a politics of grievance, one about the decline of white history and European heritage and one about Black and enslaved histories. Let’s agree not to censor them, while also acknowledging that they are just a lens.
I want to ask whether radicalism from the left wasn’t the problem rather than antiracism or conservativism being the problem. I don’t think doubling down on American history and myth without reflection about its entrenched history of oppression is the way, though this is what he may be proposing (I just started the book). The beginning of our country featured slavery, then Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex. These are objective facts, while Kendi and Rufo offer interpretations of those facts.
While he talks about the prison camps of the Soviet Union and Angela Davis’s cold heart to the gulag prisoners, he doesn’t mention America’s indifference to lynchings and our current complacency regarding mass incarceration. Our mass incarceration is equally egregious and ongoing. I don’t think lawlessness and the proliferation of drug culture and gangs is the answer to the problem, which is what the left seems to think, but that doesn’t mean that mass incarceration shouldn’t be addressed as an emergency.
Tempering, not censoring, radicalism
I think that we need to temper radicalism, be it in Trump or Cornell West, and not antiracism. This doesn’t mean we should censor either Trump or Cornell West. And I’ll keep reading Rufo’s important analyses sympathetically. I think his is an extremely important lens, but I don’t think it should be the definitive lens of our era. Mao and Stalin banned books, too.