How to Manufacture a Moral Panic

Christopher Rufo helped incite an uproar over racism education with dramatic, dodgy reporting.

Photo: Christopher F. Rufo/YouTube
Photo: Christopher F. Rufo/YouTube

Los Angeles public school teacher R. Tolteka Cuauhtin had Googled his discipline, ethnic studies, in March when he discovered he wanted children to honor the Aztec gods of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Should the state of California implement the curriculum that Cuauhtin had helped design, an article in the conservative magazine City Journal reported, students would “chant to the gods Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Xipe Totek, seeking ‘healing epistemologies’ and ‘a revolutionary spirit. Huitzilopochtli, in particular, is the Aztec deity of war and inspired hundreds of thousands of human sacrifices during Aztec rule.”

Cuauhtin found himself in crowded company, the latest educator singled out by right-wing activist Christopher Rufo for crimes against public education. Rufo’s article was picked up by American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, who wrote it up in a blog post headlined “The Re-Barbarization of California.” The Daily Caller grabbed it. So did Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, who interviewed Rufo about his story. He has also captured the attention of liberals. He recently sparred with MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid on her show, visibly sighing as Reid explained the concept of whiteness to him.

Last summer, Rufo seemed to come from nowhere, arriving on the scene after a national uprising against racism to lead the charge against the supposed excesses of anti-racism education, branding it all with a once-obscure academic term: critical race theory. Armed with a prolific Twitter account and the backing of the conservative Establishment, he brandished “scoops” about the widespread infiltration of the theory and eventually caught the attention of the Trump White House. In short order, he had transformed himself from a limited kind of Twitter star to bona fide conservative influencer. The proof lies offline in the new moral panic he helped instigate. Republican operatives, legislators, and commentators, all professing concern for young hearts and minds, claim that children are being taught to hate white people.

A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, Rufo didn’t just bolt onto Twitter from the void. He is the product of a right-wing movement that has formed countless others from the same mold. A documentary filmmaker who graduated from Georgetown University’s school of foreign service, Rufo possesses an impeccable conservative pedigree: Fellowships with unclear purviews litter his resume. A former visiting fellow for domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, Rufo was also once a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute alongside James O’Keefe of Project Veritas. Later, he worked for a little-known Christian think tank based in Seattle called the Discovery Institute, where he wrote frequently on the subject of homelessness. Before long, Rufo’s interests combined in a new cause. After last summer’s protests, he wrote a piece for City Journal comparing the diversity training conducted by the city of Seattle to “cult programming” that was picked up by the New York Post. A week later, he promoted a story about the Treasury Department that has since been debunked by the Washington Post. In Rufo’s account, Treasury allegedly subjected workers to a radical diversity training that urged them to “accept their white racial superiority.” In reality, the document Rufo cites as proof said no such thing.

Despite the flaws in his reporting, Rufo’s profile grew, and by last September, he had appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to urge Trump to issue an executive order “abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government.” Three days later, Trump’s budget director sent out a memo relaying Trump’s desire that federal agencies “cease and desist” funding diversity programs that allegedly trained “government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda,” as Yahoo News reported at the time. Trump would later issue an executive order banning programs that, in the words of the budget director’s memo, taught government employees that the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

Though he refers to himself as an investigative journalist, writing dramatically of whistleblowers and documents, Rufo is often responsible for propagating false or misleading accounts like the Treasury Department story and has arguably helped to incite a nationwide panic over the alleged presence of critical race theory in public schools, the federal government, and the workplace.

“There’s no question about it that he’s quite influential,” said Charlie Sykes, a Rufo critic and former conservative talk-show host who broke with the GOP over Donald Trump.  “People were looking around for some way to play this card of racial grievance. They were looking for another cause in the cultural war. And this happened to be it, and he happened to be on it.”

Rufo’s war often targets noncombatants like Cuauhtin. What Rufo published “are classically racist interpretations about indigenous cultures, fabricated lies about mass human sacrifice, lies that continue on a 500-year-plus trajectory,” Cuauhtin said. Rufo got a lot wrong, Cuauhtin told me, posting short fragments of a curriculum that spans more than 900 pages and has multiple authors. The conservative writer didn’t reach out to him for his side of the story either, Cuauhtin said.

Rufo didn’t answer questions sent to him by email, responding instead that “New York Magazine is trash. If it stopped publication tomorrow, the world would be a better place.” Nevertheless, it’s possible to glean much about his motivations and worldview from his public writing. Rufo isn’t interested in denying that racism exists. No, he says, racism is real — but the actual racists are those who are teaching and spreading critical race theory, and they must be deplored in public. What Rufo and his ilk really object to isn’t critical race theory at all but the ugliness of history. When an educator exposes the racism that lurks within this nation, they often find themselves at the mercy of an onslaught from the right.

That’s what happened to officials in Oregon’s Tigard-Tualatin School District. In an article for City Journal’s spring issue, Rufo said he’d received “a blueprint” from a whistleblower. It purportedly showed that the district’s new director of equity and inclusion, Zinnia Un, planned to transform “the pedagogy and curriculum” by adopting the theories of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose best-known work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, encourages teachers to work with their students as partners and frames education as an act of liberation and mutual humanization. This is a problem, Rufo said, because Freire was a Marxist. “Following Freire’s categorizations, Un writes that the Tigard-Tualatin school district must move from a state of ‘reading the world’ to the phase of ‘denunciation’ against the revolution’s enemies and, finally, to the state of ‘annunciation’ of the liberated masses, who will begin ‘rewriting the world,’” Rufo wrote.

The school-district document Rufo cites does not say this. It references Freire’s work but not, for example, revolution, its enemies, or the liberated masses. A spokesperson for the district said the presentation was used internally for an opt-in professional-development session and school-board discussions about implementing an anti-racist resolution; a revolutionary vanguard has yet to form.

Of an additional staff resource, Rufo wrote that it “assumes” whites are born racist, which he called “textbook cult indoctrination.” The truth is a bit tamer: The guide urges white educators to move beyond the “belief that you aren’t racist if you don’t purposely or consciously act in racist ways,” and according to the spokesperson, it has not been used in any formal settings, such as for staff training. Still, this hysterical interpretation appealed to right-wing commentators like Andy Ngo, and Rufo later went on Newsmax to promote the misleading story further.

Professor Cheryl Harris, a leading scholar in the field of critical race theory and the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Professor in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at UCLA Law, began to receive hostile emails so “distorted” that, at first, “I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said. The emails came after Rufo referenced her in a March article for Hillsdale College’s Imprimis magazine, claiming she had called for “suspending private property rights, seizing land and wealth and redistributing them along racial lines.” He later included cherry-picked quotes from her seminal articleWhiteness as Property,” in an online “briefing book” on critical race theory.

“I was getting emails saying, ‘Well, why don’t you redistribute your property?’” she said. She realized then that it was because of Rufo’s pamphlet, where he “explicitly says, I’m calling for the suspension of private property, seizing land and wealth and distributing them along racial lines.” She added, “I’ve never said such a thing.” Though the emails didn’t contain any direct threats, she described them as “disturbing” and said, “Maybe I’m reading this in a particular way, but I know that when people believe that something like their property is threatened, or their children are threatened, they feel justified in doing whatever they need to do to protect them.”

The curriculums and programs targeted by the right have little to do with critical race theory itself, according to Harris. “One of the challenges is there is what critical race theory is, and there’s what it’s being portrayed to be in the context of this disinformation campaign. So it’s difficult to start out a discussion about what it is when what is being projected really bears no resemblance to it and has no intention of bearing any resemblance to it,” Haris said. The theory started as a school of thought in law to examine how racial inequality persisted in society despite policies adopted to eliminate it, she explained.

In this context, Rufo’s role is clear. He takes critical-race theory as a concept, strips it of all meaning, and repurposes it as a catchall for white grievances. “The goal,” he tweeted, “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.” In an interview with the Post, he said the tweet described an “obvious” approach: “If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign.”

That campaign might be working. InsideHigherEd reported in early June that lawmakers in sixteen states “have introduced or passed legislation this year seeking to limit the teaching of critical race theory within public institutions.” The head of the Nevada Family Alliance recently suggested that schools outfit teachers with body cameras to make sure they aren’t teaching critical race theory. Online, Rufo often cheerleads these anti-critical-race-theory developments to his nearly 200,000 Twitter followers, proof of a war going well. The militaristic overtones are hard to miss. Rufo’s Twitter handle includes an emoji of crossed swords, which he has said means “swords up.”

In form, the fight over critical race theory in schools resembles earlier panics over the teaching of intelligent design and its cousin creationism, over the teaching of LGBT themes, and over prayer and the Bible — remove God from school, and young people will tumble down the highway to hell. Mike Pompeo recently couched things in more secular terms, with the nation taking the place of the divine. “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That’s really dangerous,” he tweeted. “It strikes at the very foundations of our country.”

Rufo isn’t the first to treat schools like battlegrounds. At both the K-12 and college levels, education represented a challenge for the Christian right to which Rufo’s former employer, the Discovery Institute, belongs. Like many a young Evangelical, I encountered the think tank in the 1990s, when they battled the forces of Darwinism. They argued schools should teach intelligent design, if not as the sole truth of the world, then as a credible scientific theory. Rufo was surrounded by people long accustomed to classroom culture wars. “Teach the controversy,” they urged. Decades later, with Rufo, they appeared to have changed their minds. When did it conclude that some controversies matter more than others?

I called up my old boss Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has repeatedly challenged the Discovery Institute and its allies over the teaching of intelligent design in schools. “It’s really interesting, this question of public schools, because I’ve followed this for a long time, and there’s this theory among Christian nationalist groups that the public schools are almost like laboratories for whatever social-engineering project liberals have come up with,” he said.

That theory boasts many adherents, as my own experiences can testify. I was homeschooled until the mysteries of algebra defeated my mother. My textbooks told me that God had created the Earth in seven days, that abortion was murder, and that America was founded on Biblical principles. Against reality, each claim runs aground. But the last, about the origins of America, still consumes Rufo and conservatives in his orbit.

The teaching of evolution, sex, and LGBT themes to America’s impressionable youth inflamed the Christian right, though, like Rufo, the movement never acted alone. It found common cause with its more secular conservative counterparts on issues of race. Years before anyone had ever heard of Rufo, the Texas board of education fought over where, exactly, to fit slavery among the causes of the Civil War. More recently, the 1619 Project has presented a direct challenge to the right’s popular version of history and incited widespread conservative fury in turn. Republican legislators in multiple states filed bills to cut funding to public schools that teach it.

Rufo’s punches don’t always land. The California State Board of Education adopted the model ethnic-studies curriculum in March despite backlash from Rufo and others. But the battle he’s fighting will likely persist. School segregation is not a matter of the past. Neither is white supremacy. Probably no one is teaching Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” to elementary school students, but that doesn’t matter to Rufo, Harris says. He isn’t interested in facts but myths, and myths can be dangerous. “We have the experience now of witnessing how isolated incidents of voter irregularities have been marshaled now into a myth about voter fraud,” she said. “What happens when that kind of myth is said? What it can actually engender is quite violent. It’s not just voter-suppression laws. It’s January 6th.”

Rufo, meanwhile, is pursuing his new cause with his customary militaristic vengefulness. In April, he announced on Twitter that he had formed a new “center for narrative, legal and policy warfare,” called Battlefront. “The time is now,” he added. “Swords up.”

How to Manufacture a Moral Panic