In the third episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman talks with Christopher Rufo, an investigative journalist and filmmaker whose work has become the tip of the spear for those with concerns about critical race theory and how it’s sweeping classrooms, government agencies, and corporate board rooms.

Stepman and Rufo talk about the extent of CRT’s penetration of various important institutions, as well as how people from the right, center, and liberal left are banding together to push back against it. Christopher also lays out the case against despair for those who feel overwhelmed by how quickly “woke” ideas have swept the field across so many areas and how so many feel unable to speak against it.

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.


TRANSCRIPT

Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. I’m excited to welcome to the High Noon stage, Christopher Rufo. Christopher Rufo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, as well as a frequent contributor to their quarterly journal, City Journal. He is the director of four PBS films and the journalist behind a series of investigative reporting pieces on the subject critical race theory that have had an enormous impact on our national discussion. He’s become the face of a growing movement against critical race theory in institutions, from so called diversity trainings in government agencies, to race divided exercises in public schools. What I love so much about this guy and our conversation is that he is the Energizer bunny of American optimism. Instead of staring morosely into a martini, Rufo is the guy who’s out there exposing, organizing and just generally getting things done.

We talked about all of that work, how to organize what now seems to be millions of voices raising the alarm about this pernicious ideology and why I’m wrong to be such a pessimist about our chances of beating it back. The New York Times had this to say about his work, “Rufo’s been leading the conservative charge against critical race theory. Last year, during an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, he called on Trump to issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government. The next day, he told me, White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, called him and asked for his help putting an order together.” The New York Times did not mean this as praise, but I do. Welcome to High Noon, Christopher Rufo.

Christopher Rufo:

Good to be with you.

Inez Stepman:

Let’s start off with this, what is critical race theory? And how did it seemingly move so quickly from the faculty lounges of our universities into government agencies, into our K-12 system, even into private corporations?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, it’s a big question, an important question and a really simple explanation is that critical theory or critical race theory rather, is an academic discipline that takes a look at the intersection between power, race and social institutions and the critical race theorists maintain that all American institutions, everything from the Declaration, the Constitution, the legal system, the Bill of Rights, private property, freedom of speech, all of those fundamental building blocks of our government and society are shot through with systemic racism that hasn’t changed. That has changed not by degree, but by form. Critical race theorists sometimes make the argument that racism now is just as bad as it was a 100 or 200 years ago, it’s simply become more subtle, more deeply buried and more hidden by camouflage.

And this idea which started as a radical academic idea, very quickly has moved through the institutions and I think for a couple reasons. One is that it’s constructed in a way that manipulates Americans’ fear, guilt and then also genuine altruism, the desire to do good. And it feeds all of these very unstable emotions for most Americans that has made it almost invulnerable to counterattack. When the critical race theorists or people that are inspired by critical race theory, whether they’re HR programmers or diversity trainers or K through 12 curricula designers, they feel in a sense powerless to push back against it. But also in many cases, they feel emboldened because it’s a radical ideology that serves the gratification of a destructive impulse and a really cynical view into our society.

Inez Stepman:

You’ve really been a one man point of the spear on this issue in many ways, given your investigative journalism work, but you’ve also been key to organizing some of the legislative resistance at the state level, I guess also at the federal level with the last administration. And then you’ve also been coordinating a type of legal response to these kinds of trainings, to the infiltration of this ideology in our schools and government agencies and various other places. Could you explain a little bit about each sort of part of your work and how those pieces fit together into a more of a comprehensive pushback against this?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, they’re all interlinked, they’re all mutually reinforcing and the pieces that you laid out are exactly it, it’s first investigative reporting. I think a lot of people on the right have thought that if we debate these ideas like critical race theory or critical theory more generally, if we debate them, if we expose the faulty logic and the flawed reasoning in a kind of semi-academic debate, that that will solve the problem. But in reality it doesn’t work that way. And I think what Americans need to see is not that there’s flawed logic or bad reasoning, they need to see the damage that is being done to real people and the damage that is being done to real institutions. The focus of my investigative reporting has revealed that where it’s saying, it’s one thing to understand that there’s a temptation or a imperative and critical race theory to divide people into oppressor and oppressed.

It’s another thing to say in Cupertino, California, third grade elementary school teachers are forcing eight year olds to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities and then categorize themselves as oppressor and oppressed. It becomes concrete, it becomes tangible, it becomes real, it becomes emotional. And I’ve released a series of these stories. I did a dozen stories in K through 12 education. I did probably, I think, 10 stories in the federal government, federal agencies last year. I’m now moving onto corporations. I’m going to be reporting on that in the coming week or two and starting a new series. And it gives people a story that provides a launch point for action. And my stories on education for example, generated somewhere approximately 250 million media impressions. This is very concretely changing the entire national conversation because I’m just building and building and building this body of evidence.

And the second thing, or maybe we can talk about legal and legislative is really stems from that. It’s a lot of my reporting to my surprise frankly, inspired an executive order, inspired legislation, inspired state lawmakers. And then they bring me in on the backside to kind of educate lawmakers on what a critical race theory is, what damage is being done, what might be a sensible response. And then I can also be then a cheerleader for these bills that are moving through state legislatures.

And finally, on the legal front, I’ve had a kind of outpouring, more than a 100 attorneys said, “I want to volunteer to fight this in the courts.” And I have assembled now a coalition, we filed three lawsuits. I think we’ll file another 10 before the year’s over. We’re going to just absolutely rain down lawsuits on institutions that are practicing these forms of neo-racism. And we’re not going to stop until we get to the Supreme Court and until we get a very clear precedent that these programs are not only morally and intellectually bankrupt, but they’re actually a violation of existing a constitutional law.

Inez Stepman:

What is the legal theory there? I know that you’re arguing that they’re both a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that they’re a violation of the 14th Amendment. Could you maybe expand a little bit on the outlines of those legal arguments?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, yeah. That’s essentially right and I leave it to our brilliant legal scholars to pull up the precedent. But in very simple terms, we’re fighting on three fronts, on First Amendment grounds. Basically saying when public institutions, especially in an educational setting where students are there, they’re compelled to be in school. On First Amendment grounds, they’re compelling speech that violates the right to conscience, that violates people’s basic dignity. The government can’t compel speech, especially discriminatory speech. That’s a violation of the First Amendment. We have a case in Las Vegas, Nevada that is looking very good that is making that argument.

Then there’s a 14th Amendment argument where you’re saying, “well, you can’t treat people of different racial groups, you can’t treat them unequally. People have a right to equal protection under the law.” And some of these training programs in corporations and government and schools explicitly discriminate and treat people differently on the basis of race. There’s a violation of the 14th Amendment.

And then the US Civil Rights Act, a similar theory. These programs that perpetuate in racial stereotypes constitute a form of racial harassment. And again, violate the basic tenets of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I know there’s Title VI cases, Title VII cases, depending on the institution and we feel confident in all three of these arguments. And I’d like to see all three of them go to the highest court and place these very reasonable restrictions on some of these programs that are just frankly, kind of maniacal and out of control and serve no purpose for achieving a broadly held conception of racial justice. They really are toxic, divisive, destructive, cynical, all of these adjectives that we’d prefer not to describe our public institutions with.

Inez Stepman:

You’ve mentioned Las Vegas, Nevada and Cupertino, California. Have you seen that some of these either training programs or incursions into the K-12 system are limited to blue states or blue cities? Because sometimes I get pushback from folks and they say, “Well, that might be the case in crazy San Francisco, California Bay area area,” where you grew up, I believe. You’re from the Seattle area. That might be the case in these crazy blue cities, but here in a rural area or here in a red state, this is not so much of a problem. Do you have examples from more moderate or even conservative areas or districts where some of this is nevertheless happening?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, a lot. It’s absolutely everywhere. I reported on a story in Springfield, Missouri, where a middle school was forcing teachers to locate themselves on an oppression matrix and then telling white male Christians that they were inherently oppressors. And then racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities that they were inherently the oppressed. I know Texas just had a big election about this. In multiple school districts in the state of Texas, they were pushing a critical race theory on onto kids in a very aggressive way. And I get emails every day. I get hundreds of emails a day sometimes of people all over the country saying, “Oh, this is coming to my school districts in Kansas,” or Illinois or New Hampshire or Arkansas. Truly everywhere.

And it’s, I think in part because the graduate schools of education that train teachers and the big state teachers colleges, this is their main program. This is the main item at the buffet for teaching teachers. And a lot of the times the young teachers especially, don’t even know that there is an alternative. They don’t even know that there might be a problem with this. They don’t even know that there is anything different because they’ve been put through an ideological program at the state university systems that has put this front and center as the primary pedagogical tool to use to achieve this idea of social justice.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. One of the things that really stood out to me about that Texas case that you mentioned, where a community really did fight back and organize and then ended up electing new school board members that were opposed to implementing a plan to put some of those critical race theory stuff into the school district. I noticed that after they said that it was three times higher, turnout was three times higher in those races than it was normally and what that three times higher was, was 14%. 14% turnout. This has been a problem for a long time in school districts. We talk about public schools being democratic in some way as though they’re democratically controlled but oftentimes that means four or five, 6% turn out elections that are very easily controlled by a minority view, as long as it’s well organized.

Is that what you found that when parents actually are made aware? What can parents do if they notice, for example, that their public school is teaching something along these lines, either critical race theory or sort of left wing gender ideology is another one that a lot of parents are worried about. What can parents do in that situation?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. And what I’ve seen in my reporting on education in particular, is that there are certain institutions within the broader education system that are very organized, that push very hard to achieve control. And these are driven by teachers unions in many cases, driven by public employees who work in the Department of Racial Equity, which are full-time activism roles. They have their built in network of teachers and nonprofits and contractors and unions that have full-time professional activist staff members that can guide the institutions and win elections because most parents are busy. They have their kids and their jobs and their other obligations and don’t pay enough attention to these things because education has been looked at as almost like a neutral ground or, okay public school, they’re doing this and that. That’s not true anymore.

And I think what happened in Texas is that parents said, “Hey, wait a minute, you’re putting an ideology into the classroom that is in direct opposition to the values of a broad and multiracial majority of parents.” And they essentially caught the activists in the act of ideologizing the institutions. And they ran a campaign and they won by 40 points. They absolutely buried the people. It shows two things. One is that pay attention to what’s happening. And two, if you push back in numbers with some discipline and organization, you can overwhelm these full-time AstroTurf activists that feel like public education is their own private ideological domain.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. It’s interesting that you say that education has been considered a neutral ground. And you mentioned that this is by no means limited to blue states or blue cities. Initially I think you’ve said in other forums that you found very little interest in this topic that is now driving organization in a grassroots way among parents, among citizens in such a big way I think. You found very little interest among the let’s call it the conservative movement or the sort of apparatus associated with that in Washington DC or in other places, think tanks, legislative staff, the Republican party, the establishment of the party and even legal organizations, you kind of did not find initially that they really understood how important this issue was. I think you said they were set up to fight economic issues on economic fronts only and they were unprepared for this kind of cultural battle.

Do you think that’s still true? Do you think that more of these institutions are realizing that this is a really important battle? Or what do you think it says about the right that they were so wholly unprepared for something as critical as a battle over what’s taught to our future voters, what’s taught to our citizens?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. two things, what you’re saying is accurate, an accurate description of what was the reality six months ago, but it’s changed a lot and it’s changed very fast. When I first started working on this issue, I didn’t have very many allies. It was truly, the first time I went on Tucker in this part of this ongoing series of reports on critical race theory in the federal government, I said almost kind of tongue in cheek a bit, but also serious, “I’m declaring a one man war against critical race theory in the federal government.” And it was not really an exaggeration. It was me and then maybe a couple of other people thinking about this. And after this kind of took off, I went to some of the institutions and people were excited about it, but I think people on the right and the more institutional right were also scared. People were wary to engage on cultural issues, on racial issues. I don’t know if it’s fair to say in broad strokes, but the right lost the culture war 1.0. I think that’s probably fair. Would you agree?

Inez Stepman:

I think it’s quite fair. Yeah. I think we lost wars one, two, three, four, five, and maybe six.

Christopher Rufo:

Okay. Well, let’s just say 1.0 and then all of a sudden with the Trump executive order, now this legislation and these lawsuits, people started to realize, oh, wait a minute. Not only is this intellectually coherent and correct on the merits, but we’re making major headway. I think Rod Dreher wrote the American Conservative, he wrote this like breathless column. He said, “We never win these fights. We always lose.” And now here we are and we’re winning. And what I’ve seen on the right is that the one man war that started last fall, last summer, early fall, there are now millions of people that are fighting on this issue. We ratcheted up the Google trends. It had been flat lining on critical race theory at about zero. We ratcheted it up to a 100 on kind of search intensity or public interest, twice in the last six months.

And all of a sudden you have former President Trump, former Vice President Pence, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Tom Cotton, Senator Tim Scott, 12 state legislatures, Nikki Haley, anyone who wants to be anyone in this more conservative movement and Republican party electorally, they’re all talking about this because they know that it is a winning issue. And it’s also the right thing to do. And I think people are also understanding that this ideology is truly a threat, not just to working or school, but in its actual philosophy is something that really seeks to undermine the fundamentals of American life, American institutional life, American law, American society, in a way that it’s not even relevant to the old dichotomies thinking about Black and white or ethnic or racial minorities more generally.

Critical race theory is bad for everyone and I’m actually convinced that it’s frankly, worst of all, for anyone who is down on the income ladder. It’s just a disaster of an ideology. It’s a kind of zombie resurgence of mid 20th century new Marxism and Americans are not going to put up with it. And one thing I think that I’ve maybe done successfully is I’ve let conservatives know, you can fight on this issue and I’ve given people a sense of courage. And that to me is the most important thing that I can do. I can blaze a trail. I can cut through to kind of open up new territories and give people the courage to follow.

Inez Stepman:

I totally agree with you that there’s kind of a class element to this and maybe a type of Charles Murray argument where some of this jargon or the ideas involved are working out quite well for people with PhDs or some of these folks who are making enormous amounts of money as consultants and working in DEI sections of every major corporation, but it’s being used against the average American, even as a matter of class. I’m thinking here of the episode at Smith College, where if you are an employee of the university and you’re accused of racism, even without evidence, even though it’s not true, even though the investigation might find that the situation was misinterpreted, you’re really on the chopping block. And on the flip side, it seems like this kind of language or jargon has become a type of class marker or a virtue signal to prove that you’re of a certain quote unquote educated class.

Does the elite nature wokeism and critical race theory, did it make it those ideologies more or less powerful? Because obviously they’re engendering, to your point of optimism, they are engendering a very broad based backlash and yet they still hold the heights of what seems like nearly every institution in American life. They hold the newsroom of the New York Times and they hold the universities, which they’ve held for a long time. They hold most of the bureaucratic institutions, whether those are government agencies, right down to public schools. I guess, is it a strength or a weakness or both of these ideologies that they really do seem to be top down. They really do seem to be in use primarily by the elite against those who might be lower on the income scale or generally have less cultural power.

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. Obviously when you control elite institutions, that’s an advantage. You’re in a position of power, but there are two things that cut against that, that give me hope for optimism. One is that, it’s a fake ideology. I think a lot of the people who are even supporting this and even kind of repeating its slogans and phrases, don’t actually believe it. I think a lot of are intimidated into repeating it in an almost Soviet or Maoist style, call in response with elite institutions where you’re supposed to say X, Y, and Z so we say X, Y, and Z, but privately we’re not so sure. And we’re not going to actually change our behavior to align with our publicly professed ideology. I think you get that a lot where you have elites that preach all of these values and practice none of them. In a way, it creates an opportunity for us to not only expose hypocrisy, which I think is almost a waste of time. It’s a sugar rush strategy, but to actually use it against people who are saying things that they know are false.

You’re automatically exposing yourself to some strategic risk by doing so. And then I think these things can crumble as well. When you have a fake ideology that is perpetuated by fake institutions to solve social scientifically derived fake problems. We have real problems in the United States, including racial disparities, if you look at the racial outcomes. But a lot of these two are class issues where increasingly the problems of the Black working class and the white working class and the Latino working class are much more similar to one another than they are with the elite members from their same racial category.

You have this really, I think, strong ideology in control of institutions, but the foundations of it are so weak that now that we’re attacking it and let’s be honest, it’s not a lot of people who are attacking it. We’re a very small group of people. We don’t have big organizations, we don’t have big staff, we don’t have universities. We don’t have any of those institutional powers and we’re absolutely demolishing these people. It’s frankly fun and awesome and exciting and an adventure. And we’re giving people a sense that you can tear this fake building down. And I think we’re successfully doing it. I really sense a shift in momentum. I sense that the critical race theory kind of defenders and propagators are very much on the defensive and that we’re doing real damage to them in almost David versus Goliath power imbalance. And to me that makes it a sign that we’re being successful and that we are pursuing the right strategies.

Inez Stepman:

Let me ask you then a cynical Slavic style question. What happens when Goliath really starts to recognize that you’re doing damage and that some of this pushback is doing damage? It seems to me that the way that you’re organizing this, which is fantastic, this legislative, legal and investigative journalism fronts, plus a big media presence and gathering stories from all over the country. This is the way to organize this if you believe in one fundamental premise that I’m sort of teetering on, which is that if you start to be really seriously successful, all those institutions that we just talked about are going to still play by the rules. But what we saw in the last four years of the Trump administration, whether people love him or hate him has been, I think almost the theme of the Trump administration has been institutions stepping outside of what have been considered the rules of the road for American institutions for decades in some cases, centuries.

Just to list a few examples of what I’m talking about, we had an important election story published by a well regarded newspaper, the New York Post yanked off of social media, just a couple weeks before an election, we had government agencies leaking sometimes false information that resulted or edited information then that then resulted either in media firestorms or sometimes in the actual impeachment charges. We saw intelligence agencies really involve themselves in an overtly political way into the political process in a way that was wildly inappropriate or at least would be considered wildly inappropriate. And I feel like they all did that because they felt, uh-oh, this guy love him or hate him from the sort of policy perspective or even personal perspective, this guy is really going to upend the power cart here and we better make sure that that doesn’t happen.

What makes you think that this, if we call what you’re building may be an army metaphorically of course, an army to oppose these institutions and the ideology that they’re pushing, is it an army we need or an insurgency, a guerrilla insurgency? Because what makes you so confident that they won’t find a way to disappear all of this stuff. That they won’t find a way to step outside of the boundaries of what was considered appropriate behavior for American institutions and just find a way to sort of cut off this movement at the knees?

Christopher Rufo:

Well, I think I disagree maybe in a fundamental way with the premise of your objection. I don’t think that the last four years showed that at all. I take away a totally different lesson. The fact is is that even with social media censorship, which I disapprove of, I think it’s bad, Americans have so much more access to information now than 20 years ago or 40 years ago. You have Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, websites. It used to be 30 years ago that you’d watch ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox News, that’s it. Critical race theory would never have made the news in a lot of cases without some of these new tools. I think even with things like the New York Post censorship, Trump censorship, we still have an information environment that is vastly more abundant than it has ever been in our history and their ability to reach people with new ideas is still greater than we’ve ever had it.

Second, yeah the federal government bureaucracy, intelligence services, career bureaucrats fought against a Trump administration. That’s happened forever. Look at Nixon. Look at, even the founding, look at when we had a tiny bureaucracy comparatively a 100 years ago, a 150 years ago, that’s politics in Washington DC. And then look at Trump. I think if we’re really honest, it’s easy to blame all of these people taking Trump and unfairly maligning him and giving him negative media coverage. But I think he kind of blew it too, he’s bears a lot of responsibility. He had two years where he had the presidency and both houses of Congress and he wanted to pass a corporate tax cut. He came into office with a certain set of priorities, but didn’t actually end up pursuing them in a way that was really sophisticated.

I almost feel like looking back, it almost seems like they got into office and they’re like, “Oh God. Now what do we do?” And then they look to the kind of establishment Republicans in Congress to set the agenda. And all of those things add up to me to opportunity, which is we need to have the intellectual framework. We need to have the kind of ready made plan. Next time that power shifts, here are our priorities. Here’s how we’re going to get it done. Here’s how we’re going to fight the bureaucracy. Here’s the communication strategy that is not going to kind of fall into the media’s traps. Here’s an actual way to get these important things done in a way that is more sophisticated, more analytical, more rigorously planned and then better executed at every step of the way. I still think all that’s very possible. And I voted for Trump in 2020. I obviously wanted him to win, disappointed that he didn’t, but things shift. People lose elections. And 2022, 2024, a lot of things can happen. I’m very much optimistic at the federal level for the years to come.

Inez Stepman:

Speaking of that plan that you want to make sure is in place, if we get another political opportunity then to execute on that plan, it seems to me, that your very well coordinated and sort of holistic work on this, the integrating the legislative, the legal, the media angle, all of that and the state and federal levels. This has been very much the exception to the rule in terms of pushing back against this dominant narrative. And I think that’s in part why it’s been so successful, your work has been so successful and has notched real wins in a way that a lot of folks worked their whole lives in a particular issue and never managed to notch the kind of wins that you have in a relatively short period of time. And if you are right, that people are waking up to the dangers of this in larger and larger numbers, how do we organize and communicate a message that is perhaps not the same, but at least all marching in the same general direction? Having our efforts March in the same general direction?

Because it seems to me because this is the dominant narrative in our institutions that a lot of the pushback so far and maybe that’s changing, has been somewhat scattered. We’re ideologically different. I know that at least until recently you still considered yourself either moderate or somewhat on the liberal side of the spectrum. Conservatives obviously oppose those for their own reasons. There’s elements of the left that oppose it. We’re all sort of a grab bag and individuals oppose one aspect of this or another. We’re kind of in the dictionary definition of a sense of this word we’re reactionary. We’re reacting to this dominant narrative rather than organizing as you have and sort of in an organized way, advancing the ball on all different levels. How do we get the entirety of this movement, if you want to call it a movement, to coordinate in the way that you have with your work?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. I think it is a movement. It’s become a movement to my great surprise. I never thought I would be leading any kind of movement, but that’s what’s happened. And I don’t know. I don’t want to draw too much for my own kind of personal experience with this, but I think some things that have been helpful lessons that could perhaps be applied to more organizations is that institutions, conservative institutions, think tanks, policy shops, political organizations, et cetera, have to really rapidly modernize how they communicate. And also have to organize in a way that is less bureaucratic, less institutional, if you want to repeat the word and more high risk, more venture focused, more like small startups that are focused on issues and actually thinking about returns and trying to say, “All right, what is the minimum amount of work I can do to achieve the maximum results?”

And I think we’re going to need a lot of internal soul searching and reform in our institutions because that’s not really the model for a lot of people, but I think it’s a model that shifts with communications technology, with how media is structured, with how stories are told. We really have to get much more sophisticated. And this little project I’ve done, I’m very narrowly focused on one thing. I’ve been working on it for a while, a little short of a year. I’ll probably do another year on it and then move on. But it’s been two people. It’s been me and a research assistant and that’s it. Very small budget, tiny team that makes partnerships with other institutions. And I just think that’s got to be how we think about it is how can we deploy these small teams that are focused on generating maximum results and then networking those small teams within a broader infrastructure?

And luckily on the positive side, I think a lot of conservative institutions are starting to realize that, starting to embrace it, starting to think in this different way and are getting excited about it. I think that we should encourage reform, encourage adaptation, encourage advancement, encourage experimentation, encourage risk taking and how can we reinvent conservative institutions, think tanks, et cetera in order to actually win and get results and move the ball forward and put out something that is exciting for people to participate in that people can be proud of associating with? And people feel a sense of thrill and excitement, a sense of risk taking and adventure and fun.

And I think also fun. We got to enjoy it too. And that’s one thing that I think is an attitudinal question where it should be more fun for you to join our team of ragtag rebels than their team of cynical, pessimistic, ill fitting suited, bureaucratic, jibber jabberers that repeat these buzzwords incessantly like computer programs. We have an easy enemy to fight and let’s cultivate an identity and a sense of fraternity or solidarity that is inspiring for people, that calls people to courage and actually then has fun in its victories.

Inez Stepman:

Do you think that your background as a filmmaker plays into you seeing the issues this way and looking at how to really utilize media, how to make it fun, how to create a sense of solidarity, what you’re saying, how to tell these stories in a concrete way that still inspires people to be courageous and act? Do you think that your background as a filmmaker has helped you understand how to do that?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, I think that’s probably right. And sure, did I learn a lot about media, communication, storytelling, character, emotion narrative, all of those things are kind of the tool set of filmmaking. Production, visual communications, I think those are all tools that helped, but one thing that was great about my former filmmaking career that I’ve kind of let go of at this point, is that I got to actually go out into the world and seek that adventure that we’re talking about. I graduated from Georgetown, a lot of my classmates were investment banking or consulting or government service or law school or whatever.

Inez Stepman:

Now they’re all in DEI.

Christopher Rufo:

Capitol Hill, DEI, whatever. All of it. And I was so, I just was horrified by that path. I just rejected it. Couldn’t handle it. I set out on an actual adventure. I traveled to 60 plus countries around the world. I made films in conflict and post-conflict zones. I traveled with nomadic tribesmen. I did looking back actually, a lot of dangerous stuff too, but truly pushing myself to the limits of that experience. And consequently, you come back and I’m working on critical race theory. This seems like, kind of not even a big deal, not scary, not a lot of conflict, not very dangerous. I’m writing and talking on TV. But I think that it requires that same spirit of entering new territory and going into fights where no one has fought it before or going into intellectual territory that has been dominated by another set of people who are opposed to you and then trying to navigate that.

And I think that attitude and that that spirit has served as served well, has gotten people out of the rut of what is politics? What is think tanking? Is it writing the 87 footnotes in a policy paper and then just lighting it on fire? No, we can actually re-envision how this whole process works and how we attain influence in the intellectual and creative and political process.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. One of the reasons I’m so proud to work with IWF is I think that we think exactly along those lines, we do have some very short white papers, but we are really geared at putting out that information in any way possible, talking out through the media and really trying to convince. I think too much of the political sphere really is often writing or speaking or performing for a group of people who’s maybe a few hundred people and those people have a lot of influence, but what can happen as we’ve seen is that group of people can get so wildly out of touch with what problems are actually on the front lines. What problems are actually confronting the average American? What is actually sort of shaping the future of our country in a much more substantive way as you point out? What did the Republican party do with two years of holding every office of power in the federal government? Well, we got corporate tax cuts.

Look, I like more money. I like keeping more of my own money. I have nothing against tax cuts. I’m all in favor of tax cuts. But if you look at the trajectory of the country today, what the tax rates are, are not going to directly impact what seems to me to be much more existential issues that we’re grappling with in the culture. All that traveling that you did and all of the situations that you found yourself in, did it give you two things, one an appreciation for the American system that you think perhaps obviously the folks in the critical race theory world or Ibram Kendi says, “Were stamped from the beginning.” Our institutions have always been shot through with racism, in fact. Institutions like due process or the Bill of Rights, these are just covers for what is essentially in his view, white power, white supremacist power. Did traveling around the world and engaging with all kinds of different people, both at home and abroad, did it give you maybe a sense of perspective on the American system and how we are different from the rest of the world?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, it definitely did. I spent a lot of time in Europe, I’m a European citizen by birth. And so you can compare it to Europe, where it’s just this vaunted European’s do everything better, if you believe some people. And it’s like, well, there’s trade offs. The European system has some advantages, some disadvantages compared to the US. And then you traveled with stuff like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan and they’re the most crushed, depressing, just absolutely dreary and awful governing systems. And you start to think, oh wow, there’s actually a wide range of outcomes for societies. Or you travel in China and see the Chinese system. And so I think in a sense, yes, gives you an appreciation for the American system. But I also did a lot of traveling within the United States.

I did a film for PBS where I spent years in America’s poorest neighborhoods and cities. And so you get a sense of how rough life can be in the United States, which is another perspective that I have. And really, I think what motivates me in a large extent on critical race theory is, I spent five years directing a film for PBS, about three years of field work in one of America’s poorest, white working class neighborhoods, America’s poorest urban Black neighborhoods and one of America’s poorest Latino and multiracial neighborhoods in Stockton, California. And I got to know people very well. I’m there filming the casket closing, when someone’s son gets murdered. I’m there at the birth of a ex-felon’s child. I’m there in all of these really intimate moments in people’s lives and really getting to know these communities, really getting to know policy, really getting to know people’s stories.

And then you compare all those things that I learned again, across all racial groups, across all the largest racial groups in the United States and getting a sense of what do they think is the problem? What’s kind of preventing them from achieving their potential? What do they hope as a solution? Or what problems are they hoping to solve and how? And then you look at critical race theory, which is so detached from the experience of actual, poor and marginalized people of all racial backgrounds. It just preposterous.

It seems like almost a moral crime that people who claim to speak on behalf of the poor, the dispossessed, the racial minority, are putting together a set of analyses and then solutions that are so detached from actual life. It could only be written in a cloistered academic environment that in my view, and I’ve written this in a paper for Heritage Foundation, if these solutions were implemented and to the extent that they are implemented are actually a disaster for the people that they’re designed to help. Which gives me just a sense of passion about this, because paradoxically, it’s kind of almost strange to say, but opposing critical race theory is protecting the poorest and most vulnerable people in the United States. I believe that a 100%.

Inez Stepman:

Well, thank you so much for joining. On that note, I don’t think we can top that. I’ll just ask you one final question that’s really been the theme of this podcast and something that you do so well. How do we get more people to speak out on these issues? How do we get more people to run for school board? How do we get more people to write letters to their schools or to push back against diversity training, so-called diversity training in work? If you’re right and we have a majority or at least a strong number of millions and millions of people across the American political landscape, it seems to me, there are kind of three groups of people that we’re trying to reach. One are people who might not know this is a problem yet.

They’re still our folks, even though in our world, of course, everybody is already aware of this in large part, thanks to your work. But there are still lots of people who are taken in by nice sounding words like equity, for example, as opposed to equality. There’s that group of people we’re trying to reach. There are people who we’re trying to persuade, who are aware of this, but may agree with some of the arguments at the left, but perhaps have some doubts about how extreme it has gotten. And then there are the folks who are, I think the largest group, which are the folks who know that this is wrong, they know that it’s dangerous, but they are simply afraid to speak out. 65% of Americans now say they hide some aspect of their political views, are very much cultivating this sort of private.

And this really does remind me of places like the Soviet Union, where we have people cultivating sort of private objections, but repeating, as you say, in public and in their jobs, certain nostrums that they feel they must to continue to put food on the table for their families and to not be abandoned by their social group, their friends, their job, and so on. How do we inspire more of those people to risk speaking out? And I realize it’s very easy for someone like me to say, I’m literally, I’m fortunate enough to work at an institution like IWF, where they want me to speak out. I’m not going to get fired for saying the things that I’ve said today. But how do we shift the landscape around these folks to make it more possible for them to be able to speak out?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, I think the answer is always by demonstrating what you would like to see. And I think that people are starting to speak out with each example. And I think we’re starting to see political leaders speak out because there’s some of us that have gone first. And now what I think is really exciting is seeing people within institutions speak out often at great cost. You have Jodi Shaw at Smith College, or Paul Rossi at I believe Grace Church School, you have all of these people who are filing lawsuits, writing OpEds, speaking out, sacrificing their jobs in some cases, taking a big risk and doing that will inspire more people. And every time we do that, we lower the cost. We create a virtuous cycle of this behavior and I’ve accepted that most people can’t speak out. If you’re 50 years old, you’re nearing retirement, you have a mortgage and kids and you just, if you speak out and get destroyed, it would truly harm so many people around you. We have to offer protection for people like that on their behalf and not be disappointed that they won’t speak out.

But we have to also remember that you only need 1% of people to speak out. If you can get 1% of people to speak out, everything changes. And I think we’re getting there. I think we are building up to that. And people who are speaking out are actually getting rewarded in many cases. I think it really just starts from demonstrating that courage and modeling that courage and then rewarding that courage. And then institutionally supporting people who demonstrate those virtues that we want to see so we can turn some of these sacrifices or risks or problems. We can actually extend some form of protection or reward to those people who have taken that chance. And I think it’s already happening. And this ideology that we’re fighting is so disconnected from reality. I don’t think it’s going to be frankly, that difficult to dislodge in the coming years.

Inez Stepman:

Christopher Rufo, thank you so much for joining us on High Noon. Where can people find more of your work? And how can they help contribute to it?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, you can find me @RealChrisRufo on Twitter or you can go to my website, christopherrufo.com. That’s Christopher R-U-F-O. com. I have this really cool thing where you can contribute five, 10, $20 a month to support my work, to get my newsletter, to stay up to date. That’s much appreciated. That’s been something that’s been really fun to engage with people, to meet people and get their support. If you’re interested in that, just go to my website.

Inez Stepman:

Listeners, I hope that you will do exactly that. Thank you for tuning in for another episode of High Noon. You can find High Noon anywhere you get your podcasts, whether that’s Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube or iwf.org. Smash that subscribe button, please. Or even better, leave us a review. You can also send comments or questions for the show to [email protected] Till then, be brave and I’ll see you next time on High Noon.