How Critical Race Theory Is Taught in Public Schools

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Critical race theory is making its way into institutions across America.

Christopher Rufo, a visiting fellow for domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how critical race theory is affecting what children learn in schools. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news outlet.)

“Critical race theory is an academic discipline … that holds that racism is the driving force in society, that in order to understand power relations, in order to understand institutions such as the law, education, the Constitution, [and] social relations, you have to understand that through the lens of race,” Rufo, also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says.

Rufo explains how critical race theory is affecting corporate America and what can be done about it.

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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

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Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined on The Daily Signal by Chris Rufo, he’s a visiting fellow for domestic studies at The Heritage Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Christopher, it’s great to have you with us on The Daily Signal.

Christopher Rufo: It’s good to be with you.

Del Guidice: You just dropped a paper for The Heritage Foundation called “Critical Race Theory Would Not Solve Racial Inequality: It Would Deepen It.” Why is this the case? Can you tell us about this?

Rufo: Well, I mean, it’s the case because you have to separate premise from conclusion when you look at ideologies, when you look at policy recommendations.

And I think it’s the case in giving people the benefit of the doubt that the critical race theorists in general have the intention to erase racial inequalities to achieve what they call racial equity. But you have to actually ask, well, what specifically are they proposing?

So I go through a number of their specific proposals and then I share evidence, essentially, to the contrary that they make this mistake that they assume that all inequality is driven by capitalist domination, racial oppression, patriarchy, the whole series of structures that they identify as needing to be overthrown, where their policy prescriptions would in many cases actually damage the things that we know from social science that [are] across the ideological and partisan spectrum, actually really important things like family structure, things like educational attainment, things like workforce participation.

Those three institutions, actual live, human, concrete institutions, are extremely important determinants of poverty and inequality. And yet the critical race theorists seem to dismiss them altogether, preferring these large-scale revolutionary programs that historically have done nothing. Maybe in some cases, they flatten inequality only because they make everyone poor and subject to tyrannical rule.

Del Guidice: For those who aren’t familiar with critical race theory, can you just give us a refresher on what it is?

Rufo: Yeah. Critical race theory is an academic discipline that came to fruition, I guess, 30 years ago now that holds that racism is the driving force in society, that in order to understand power relations, in order to understand institutions such as the law, education, the Constitution, social relations, you have to understand that through the lens of race.

And they argue that the United States is on the surface a country that preaches equality, that preaches freedom, but these are actually camouflages for racial oppression, capitalist exploitation, etc.

Del Guidice: We have done a lot of work on reporting on critical race theory and how we’re seeing it affect children in schools. Can you give us some examples of what you’ve seen?

Rufo: Yeah. I just finished up, I guess, now a 12-part series of investigative reports, all original reporting on critical race theory in schools. And the stuff that you uncover is pretty brutal. It’s pretty rough.

It’s first graders in Cupertino, California, being forced to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities and then rank themselves according to power and privilege. It’s fifth-grade teachers in Springfield, Missouri, being forced to locate themselves on an oppression matrix. So telling certain teachers, by virtue of their inborn characteristics, they’re oppressors, others are oppressed.

It’s teachers in Philadelphia forcing fifth-grade students to celebrate black communism, simulate an Angela Davis “Black Power” rally, and then sharing videos that paint a horrific and very one-sided picture of the United States in a school, in this case, where 87% of students fail to achieve basic literacy.

And I could go on and on. My reporting is all out there, you can find it.

But the conclusion is that you have this very strange moment in which elite academic institutions, some of the most expensive private schools, are adopting this racial equity mania at the same time that some of the lowest-performing and poorest schools are also adopting it.

And you have to wonder, what does this serve? Whose interests and in what capacity? And I think a lot of it with the elite schools is that they’re excited about the moral posturing of this. And then for the really failing school districts like Buffalo, like Philadelphia, like Chicago, in some parts of Chicago, my read on it, it almost seems like a diversion mechanism.

These schools where large majority of students cannot read and write at basic proficiency by the time they graduate middle school, they’re shifting the blame to these abstract societal problems while ignoring the fact that in many cases, these schools have resources, $15,000, $18,000 a year per student, and have failed year after year after year to educate kids in the very basics of what they’re going to need to understand in order to make progress.

So we have this really strange paradox where these institutions that, in my view, are perpetuating inequalities are positioning themselves as the great fighters of inequality. And I think it’s totally bogus. It’s totally fake. It’s totally self-serving.

Del Guidice: What can parents do to make sure their kids aren’t being taught critical race theory?

Rufo: I mean, parents can do a lot. You have a couple of options. One, you can exit. That’s probably a smart move for people who are in very politicized educational environments. You can put your kid in a different school. You can move. You can take evasive action in order to avoid this stuff.

But for parents that suspect that they’re in a more moderate political environment where they could have some power, some influence, some voice, they have to really fight back.

And I think that what I’ve seen as probably the most inspiring example are Asian American parents in schools across the country from Virginia to California to Washington state who see critical race theory as racially discriminatory against their kids, who see critical race theory as, frankly, a waste of time, comparing it to other core academic pursuits.

And then they also see it as seeking to destroy the avenues for academic excellence that, frankly, Asian American kids dominate, if you look at the outcomes.

So Asian American parents in California and Virginia, Washington state, other places have organized first by coming together as a group, figuring out what the problem is, demanding to know what’s in the curriculum, going to the teacher, going to the principal, going to the school board, running—in some cases—political action committees, leaking materials to the media, running a pretty sophisticated campaign to protect what they see as the best education for their kids.

Del Guidice: What about corporate America? Are we seeing critical race theory infiltrate there?

Rufo: We are. I don’t know. I’m torn. I think that a lot of it is just a reflection of big companies in major cities that have highly educated workforces.

Part of it is just that these ideas have permeated a professional and managerial class mindset. They take root into corporations in HR and diversity departments and philanthropic initiatives. But I think it’s less deeply rooted than in government or education because ultimately, a lot of these corporate leaders aren’t true believers in this stuff. They’re doing it as a form of insurance.

They don’t want to get protested. They don’t want to get boycotted. They don’t want to get trashed in The New York Times. So they put up these signals to protect themselves, almost like shops in Sicily would pay a little bit of protection money to the Mafia in order to not get their store burned down. It’s the same process.

So I think if the political grounds shift, corporations will shift very quickly and much more easily than other institutions.

Del Guidice: What about media coverage? Is critical race theory infiltrating there at all?

Rufo: It’s interesting. I mean, in a formal sense, a lot of the mainstream media outlets are pushing, whether they know it or not, a critical race theory ideology in their coverage. But my sense is that critical race itself is not very popular.

The media seems reluctant to defend it on the merits, they like to name call. And I think that the more you expose what’s happening in institutions that is truly indefensible, you’re starting to see even center-left media starting to pull away.

There’s still going to be a hard core set of people that just push, push, push, push. But I don’t know, it really is a bewildering moment. Do people believe this stuff? I don’t think so. I think people are becoming more and more skeptical.

As media splinters into rival camps, the single story, the single narrative, the single framework can’t hold. I think, over time, that’s what we’ll see.

Del Guidice: In a speech you wrote on critical race theory for Hillsdale, you said that too many Americans have developed an acute fear of speaking up about social and political issues, especially those involving race. Christopher, how can this be fixed?

Rufo: I mean, speak. It’s a pretty simple problem. If people are too scared to speak, they have to speak anyways.

It’s like in one sense, it’s probably the simplest problem of all to solve, but it would require the virtue of courage and that’s something that I think many people right now lack and many people right now need to be inspired in order to summon that virtue into their daily life. And I’m hopeful.

I think what I’ve seen in the last six months is that whistleblowers or dissenters or conscientious objectors within institutions are starting to come forward.

Last year, you had someone from the National Nuclear Laboratories stand up against what was happening. You’ve had teachers in New York, parents in Virginia and California standing up against this at, frankly, grave personal risk to their reputation, their employment, their peace of mind, but are making a principled stand.

I think and I’m persuaded that this process can only get easier over time. As more people speak out, as more people simply just state their convictions, we’ll see the cost of having courage decrease, so it’ll actually become easier to do. And my sense is that we’re getting there. We’re already at some inflection point and something I hope that continues.

Del Guidice: Would you say there’s any relationship between critical race theory and Black Lives Matter? That’s something that is being talked about a lot. Is there any relationship there?

Rufo: Yeah, I think so.

I think that if you read the critical race theory law review articles and position papers and scholarly books from 1995 and then you listen to the speeches at full length from a Black Lives Matter rally in Minneapolis or Seattle or Portland, it’s just a translation effect where they’re taking the ideas, basic concepts from critical race theory that are very academic, that are very abstract, and they’re distilling it down to street language, to political sloganeering, to banners and posters and other very basic syntax of political persuasion.

So I think if you look at critical race theory as an ideology and then you actually listen to the speeches that are driving the street protests, they’re essentially the same thing. They’re just a translation from the academy to the street.

Del Guidice: How would you encourage policymakers to respond to critical race theory?

Rufo: Two ways. First, you need to protect your public institutions from this ideology that promotes race essentialism, the idea that you should be judged on the basis of your race. That promotes collective guilt, the idea that you are guilty of something that someone else did historically because you share some ancestral background with them.

It also promotes neo-segregation. So splitting dormitories, splitting public facilities, splitting training sessions. And all three of those things, in my view, are already illegal under the Civil Rights Act to promote in public institutions.

But legislators have an opportunity and legislators in, I think, now 11 states are introducing legislation to this effect to say, “These are the things that we don’t teach in our schools. These are the things that we don’t promote in our public institutions.” It’s actually incumbent upon legislators to set the ground rules, to set the guard rails, to make sure that public institutions reflect the values of the public.

And then second, policymakers need to think much bigger and in a much more structural way on how you can change some of the fundamentals, some of the fundamental institutional patterns, and funding mechanisms and powers in order to decentralize as much authority, decentralize as much control, decentralize as many resources as possible back to American families, frankly.

And then if the families set the agenda, if the families can make choices, if the families control the directionality, the flow of resources, we’re going to see very different public institutions. We’re going to see very different values reflected that, in my view, are going to be, some people want to do the critical race theory thing, great, but the vast majority of people do not, and public institutions should be shaped in order to achieve that.

Del Guidice: Before we go, you started a new center called Battlefront. Can you tell us about that?

Rufo: Yeah, it’s a small studio and it’s something that I’m running with a very small team, and we’re going to be doing a series of projects where we take some of the academic or journalistic work that I do for Manhattan Institute or have done for Heritage Foundation and take it out of think-tank world, and actually get it out into society, get it out into those cultural and social and political fights.

And what we’re doing is really three things. We’re doing creative projects, so filmmaking and other creative content that reaches an audience. We’re also working on policy to actually get policy off of my computer and into the world. And then we’re also doing lawsuits.

I’ve organized a coalition. We now have more than 100 attorneys, some volunteer and then some institutional players, that are filing lawsuits across the country.

We’re going to file, I think, at least 10 by the end of the summer to fight some of these pernicious, divisive, race-based ideologies within public institutions to establish that, actually, these programs and practices are not only morally and intellectually bankrupt, but they’re actually illegal under existing law.

So those are the projects that we’re going to be doing and we’re excited about it.

Del Guidice: Well, congratulations. And, Christopher, thank you for joining us on The Daily Signal. It’s great having you.

Rufo: Thank you.

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