Last week MSNBC news anchor Joy Reid did an interview/debate with conservative think tanker Christopher Rufo who serves as a propagandist/scholar at the “Manhattan Institute.” I thought I would do a running commentary.
Why Joy Reid? The interview came about because Christopher Rufo challenged Joy Reid to a debate after some comments Reid made about him on her show. Joy Reid is a formidable figure in her right and she embarrasses Rufo again and again with his own statements during the interview. By the end of the show, Reid had exposed Rufo as a 100% conservative propagandist who had done some reading in Critical Race Theory (henceforth CRT).
But why target Joy Reid? It would have been much more logical for Rufo to challenge someone like Kimberlé Crenshaw who actually coined the term “Critical Race Theory” in the late 1980’s as a Harvard Law Student. Crenshaw’s both a founder of Critical Race Theory and continues to be a leading light in the field. It’s hard not to imagine that Rufo chose Joy Reid because he thought her to be a weaker link. Unwilling to debate Crenshaw or any of the authorities in the field, Rufo chose Reid instead.
Who’s in Charge? Joy Reid must have shocked conservatives when she quickly asserted authority–“It’s my show. It’s how I want to do it.” Much of what bothers white conservatives about critical race theory is Black people, especially Black women, exercising this kind of public authority and Reid both confirms their worst fears and unsettles them right away.
Is Social Critique a Salad or a Melting Pot? Rufo’s working concept is that authors and works from Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Studies, Intersectionality, education theory, and the #1619Project are all melted together into a Satanic mix that has infected public schooling, college education, and other American institutions and needs to be removed “root and stem.”
Actually, I’m not sure that Rufo believes that because he views his campaign against Critical Race Theory primarily as a branding operation. From the Washington Post:
We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” Rufo wrote. “The goal 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.”
The propaganda idea for Rufo is to put the whole range of progressive cultural developments, “all the cultural insanities”–under the “critical race theory” brand and then launch a nationwide witch hunt against CRT. Joy Reid catches Rufo out on the basic propagandistic dishonesty of his approach here. “You’re just really having a campaign to take everything that annoys white Americans and . . . stuff everything in there.” That’s the case and Rufo’s only response is to cite the propagandistic success of his work.
Joy Reid batted Rufo down every time he tried to amalgamate Critical Race Theory with other intellectual developments. Whiteness studies aren’t Critical Race Theory, intersectionality isn’t Critical Race Theory, and critical pedagogy and the #1619Project aren’t Critical Race Theory either. All of these developments are “related to each other” but related more like items in a salad bowl with their own separate identity and mostly unlike a melting pot where everything is blended together into a homogenous substance. And that’s just from Joy Reid’s account. Anti-rape campaigns, the campaign to legalize gay marriage, trans awareness, and equal pay for women all have cultural power but don’t fit within a CRT framework.
What’s the significance? White conservatives like Christopher Rufo have always operated under different rules than their critics. For white conservative audiences to be happy, champions like Rufo just need to get out their talking points and sometimes not even that. GOP politicians like George W and Mitt Romney often struggled with their talking points and white conservative audiences are glad when they get them right. Low standards is the name of the conservative game and conservatives revel in it.
But the significance of the Reid/Rufo debate is that conservatives no longer get to define the terms of the debate. Joy Reid represents mainstream America rather than conservatives, black women like Kimberle’ Crenshaw are far more prestigious than white men like Christopher Rufo, and Critical Race Theory, Intersectionalisty, whiteness studies, queer studies, feminism, and the focus on racism in historical studies is now the common sense mainstream while Rufo represents a conservative counterculture in dissent. Given the low expectations of conservatives, Rufo’s performance probably worked for them. But the terms of mainstream culture are increasingly defined from the left.