The important thing to know about Christopher Rufo, an anti-civil rights activist determined to advance a right-wing agenda at all costs, is that he does not operate in good faith. By his own admission, he is incurious about the topics he purports to critique. Political rhetoric is a weapon to wield in the pursuit of his desired goal. He does not debate issues on their merits; he seeks to reframe them according to his own terms, without regard for accuracy or academic rigor.
If he excels at anything, it’s sleight-of-hand sophistry designed to dupe those who are unaware of his larger political project. He is also a vicious, unrepentant transphobe who is responsible for helping to fuel years of anti-Black racism.
This is plain as day, and yet, despite all of this — or because of it — the New York Times op-ed page just published his latest attack on public education, offering its imprimatur to a con man. Unfortunately, the Times’ latest editorial decision is part of a larger trend at the paper of amplifying the right-wing offensive against education, both on the opinion and straight news sides of the institution, which includes a recent soft-lens profile of Rufo himself.
The NY Times’ trend of bad education coverage
In February, the Times published two stories over two days that completely obscured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ideological broadsides against public education. The pieces sanitized his obvious attempts to make life impossible for LGBTQ students by pursuing discriminatory policies against them and downplayed his functional ban on teaching the actual history of racism in the United States.
Both of those pieces also failed to include crucial context about Rufo’s role in DeSantis’ project. In January, the governor initiated a hostile takeover of New College, installing Rufo on the school’s board of trustees. Since then, much of the college has been in open revolt against Rufo and the new administration, with faculty leaving in droves to create an unusually high number of job vacancies. New College is now preparing to spend $2 million on the new so-called Freedom Institute that “would combat what interim president Richard Corcoran called ‘a tremendous cancel culture’ in higher education,” according to Axios.
Less than a week after the Times’ uncritical February stories, the paper returned to the topic, covering DeSantis’ ongoing campaign against schools almost exclusively as a matter of electability.
In May, the New York Times Magazine appeared to legitimize the conservative attack on public education and teachers unions, giving credence to bogus accusations leveled against critical race theory — exactly the lines of attack that Rufo pioneered.
This month, the Times joined other major newspapers in failing to adequately convey the costs of the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in college admissions.
Chris Rufo is not a scholar and should not be treated as one
This recent history of reactionary education coverage is the context in which Rufo’s new article appears. The piece itself deserves only cursory examination because it is, like everything Rufo does, only a smokescreen to obscure his real agenda. On the surface, the op-ed presents an argument against diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at colleges and universities. He claims that DEI initiatives fail on their own merit, and argues instead that institutions should adopt “a policy of colorblind equality to help establish the equal treatment of individuals, regardless of race, sex or other characteristics.”
The outcomes produced by “colorblind” policies are well-documented. In Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva comprehensively documented how downplaying or ignoring the ways race structures life in the United States offers white people a comforting, pliable set of justifications to explain persistent racial inequalities across institutions.
Similarly, Michelle Alexander’s landmark work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explained how purportedly race-neutral laws and policies in the criminal punishment system nevertheless consistently reproduce racist outcomes. It is an argument she has reiterated time and again, including within the pages of the New York Times.
The piece concludes with Rufo claiming that he wants to “encourage a culture of open debate and cultivate a ‘community of scholars’ with a wide diversity of opinions and a shared commitment to truth — something that both liberals and conservatives can and should support.”
In fact, he has pushed for the creation of a “conservative center” at public universities, called for anti-union mobs to demonstrate outside school boards, and referred to teachers as “political predators.”
Rufo is identified by the Times as a “senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank,” providing him with a veneer of scholarly qualification. The Manhattan Institute, however, is not simply a public policy think tank. It is one of the homes of the racist “broken windows” theory of policing. It is also home to Heather Mac Donald, a right-wing media mainstay — and colleague of Rufos’ — who has made almost too many racist comments to fully catalog.
There are good faith critiques to be made of DEI programs and of what the scholar Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò refers to as “elite capture” of a deradicalized identity politics more broadly. Identity politics can be used to serve the interests of entrenched systems of power by offering a superficial balm and the appearance of change without any underlying restructuring of power relations.
Rufo is not engaging with those arguments or in an honest conversation about the best way to provide an equal, quality education to all students. His goal is to entrench existing hierarchies under the guise of academic freedom and a defense of the liberal arts. The New York Times has, once again, aided him in that effort.