Bernard E. Harcourt | The Assault on Critical Race Theory: A New Phase of the American Counterrevolution

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In the wake of the police protests that erupted in the Spring of 2020 following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others—possibly the largest protests in American history—the rightwing took aim at the intellectual foundations, ideas, and concepts that underpinned the protest movements. The political struggle entered a new phase: a phase of ideological warfare, or what Gramsci called a “war of position,” against antiracist thought. In the introductory essay to Revolution 6/13, I describe this new phase of cultural warfare and the target of the attack, Critical Race Theory. In this post, I recount in greater detail how this maneuver unfolded.

How Critical Race Theory Became the Boogeyman

As Adam Harris details in an essay in The Atlantic titled “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession,” the current attack on Critical Race Theory traces back to an article published by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute on July 18, 2020.[1]Rufo opens his article with the following line: “Critical race theory—the academic discourse centered on the concepts of ‘whiteness,’ ‘white fragility,’ and ‘white privilege’—is spreading rapidly through the federal government.”[2] In the piece, Rufo defines “antiracism” as “a concept that, in their [diversity consultants’] vision, does not signify colorblindness but rather an aggressive new racialist ideology.”[3] Rufo associates antiracism with “the toxic principles of critical race theory, race essentialism, and neo-segregationism.”[4] And he warns that “the ultimate vision of critical race theorists” is: “the creation of a new, radical political consciousness.”[5]

Rufo had been writing a month earlier on cases of what he considered to be excesses in antiracism training. He was receiving an increasing number of what he called “whistleblower” tips. In his writings, he did not use the term “Critical Race Theory” until that short article on July 18, 2020. But that term, it seems, is what caught people’s attention. In part also, what drew attention was the claim of apparent corruption among some diversity consultants. Rufo documented one, in particular, who had billed the GAO $3 million in consulting fees in 2011.

Following the publication of his article, Rufo was invited on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News—not once, but twice. First, in mid-August 2020, Rufo revealed his “investigative findings” and described “the danger and destruction that [critical race theory] can wreak.” One week later, on September 2, 2020, Rufo returned to discuss the topic of CRT training in the US military. On both occasions, Rufo repeatedly harped on the term “Critical Race Theory.” It’s clear, listening to the interviews, that the real thorn was precisely that term, “CRT.” Carlson refers to it as a poison. In a tweet on August 20, Rufo declared: “My goal is simple: to persuade the President of the United States to issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory in the federal government.”[6]

Donald Trump had been watching Fox News and the next day, the White House contacted Rufo. Swiftly, Trump ordered the Office of Management and Budget to investigate. As Michelle Goldberg reports:

In September [2020], Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies to “begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’” which it described as “un-American propaganda.”[7]

That same month, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting the kind of antiracism training that Rufo had described. Rufo’s fingerprints are all over the executive order. On page 2, the order lists Rufo’s “findings” and examples.

Trump’s order did not mention the term “critical race theory.” But Trump certainly did, on many occasions. “Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families,” Trump said. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”[8]

In terms of how the offensive ideology was described – other than “pernicious,” “false,” “destructive,” and “malign”—the order defines it as any “divisive” thought that includes, for example, the claim that:

  • “America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country” (*1);
  • “some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors” (*1);
  • “racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans” (*1);
  • [arguments] “grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government ‘was made on the white basis’ ‘by white men, for the benefit of white men’” (*1)
  • “the lie that [the USA] … is fundamentally racist” (*1).

Trump’s order defines “divisive concepts” and gives illustrations including the belief that:

  • the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
  • an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  • meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

In effect, after Rufo goes on the Tucker Carlson show to talk about CRT, Trump signs an executive order that effectively tries to eradicate practices and discourse that take a critical position on race relations in America.

Critical Race Theory and Marxism

What makes the term Critical Race Theory such a powerful tool for the Right is that it contains both the term “critical theory” and “race”—so it unites both the threat of race war and class struggle. It conjoins, in one convenient package, the specter of race and Marxism.

Ellie Krasne, former manager of public programs at the Heritage Foundation—one of the most vocal conservative think tanks—draws the connection to Marxism in her description of the Rufo interviews on Fox News. Krasne writes:

Critical race theory is a theoretical framework, rooted in Marxism, that posits individuals as oppressed or oppressor based on their skin color.

Beginning in the 1960s, higher education became permeated with critical theory. Critical theory, also rooted in Marxism, says that we must understand our beliefs—including on religion and politics—vis-a-vis the “means of production”; namely, businesses and industries. In this view, it’s in the business owners’ interest to create laws, social norms, and ideas that keep them in power.

Later on, this concept was applied to race, gender, and other identities. Critical race theorists see these identities as social constructs that support systems of oppression.[8.5]

Rufo also accentuates the Marxist threat in his accounts. “To explain critical race theory, it helps to begin with a brief history of Marxism,” he begins.[9] The goal of CRT, Rufo emphasizes, is “the overthrow of capitalism, since, according to [Ibram X.] Kendi, ‘In order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist.’ In other words, identity is the means; Marxism is the end.”[10]

So, for Rufo, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, etc., a leading dimension of CRT’s evil nature is its anti-capitalism. This reflects the revolutionary nature of CRT, Rufo explains. “Historically, the accusation of “anti-Americanism” has been overused,” Rufo writes. “But in this case, it’s not a matter of interpretation: critical race theory prescribes a revolutionary program that would overturn the principles of the Declaration and destroy the remaining structure of the Constitution.”[11]

Subsequent Developments: President Joe Biden

On January 20, 2021, the day of his inauguration, Joe Biden voided Trump’s Executive Order; but following that, state legislatures have introduced legislation that would ban the teaching of critical race theory and limit antiracism training.[12]

Biden’s executive order, which he signed on the very day of his inauguration, not only revoked Trump’s order, it also takes position in the controversy. It affirms certain positions that were the Right’s attack.

  1. The order explicitly refers to “systemic racism.”
  2. The order uses the term “equity” in addition to equal opportunity.
  3. The order refers to “entrenched disparities” and “underserved communities.”

“Equity” is an important term in these debates—and one of the targets of the Right, which constantly criticizes the Left for speaking about “equity” rather than “equality.” Equality is the constitutional requirement, they argue; “equity” instead is a loose term that allows for inequality. The editors of The American Mind emphasize, in their salvo against CRT:

A system based on “equity”, in which equity means rejecting equality under the law and distributing goods and services on the basis of race alone is neither equitable nor just.

Rufo explains that “equity” is a euphemism for critical race theory. Critical theorists, Rufo argues, deploy “a series of euphemisms to describe critical race theory, including ‘equity,’ ‘social justice,’ ‘diversity and inclusion,’ and ‘culturally responsive teaching.’”[13] Rufo goes on:

Critical race theorists, masters of language construction, realize that “neo-Marxism” would be a hard sell. Equity, on the other hand, sounds non-threatening and is easily confused with the American principle of equality. But the distinction is vast and important. Indeed, critical race theorists explicitly reject equality—the principle proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, defended in the Civil War, and codified into law with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To them, equality represents “mere nondiscrimination” and provides “camouflage” for white supremacy, patriarchy, and oppression.

In contrast to equality, equity as defined and promoted by critical race theorists is little more than reformulated Marxism.[14]

Biden’s order takes this on, going so far as to define equity in the first paragraph of the definitions. The order reads in Section 2:

(a)  The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

The New Battlefield: State Legislatures

Biden’s actions seem to have emboldened the Right. Republicans have recently introduced over a dozen bills in state legislatures and in the U.S. House of Representatives seeking to ban antiracism training in employment or educational settings. In New Hampshire, the proposed legislation targets “divisive concepts,” “race or sex scapegoating,” or the idea that the country or state is “fundamentally racist.”[15] In Arkansas, it forbids training programs that encourage “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” marginalized groups.[16] Idaho and Louisiana have introduced similar types of legislation. A series of bills are passing through other state legislatures.[17]

Simultaneously, in April and May 2021—especially for some reason around April 21-22, 2021—there was a real crescendo of conservative vitriol aimed at CRT.[18] Rufo is calling for truth-telling and, through his new organization, legal warfare:

Above all, we must have courage, the fundamental virtue required in our time: courage to stand and speak the truth, courage to withstand epithets, courage to face the mob, and courage to shrug off the scorn of elites. When enough of us overcome the fear that currently prevents so many from speaking out, the hold of critical race theory will begin to slip. And courage begets courage. It’s easy to stop a lone dissenter; it’s much harder to stop 10, 20, 100, 1,000, 1 million, or more who stand up together for the principles of America. Truth and justice are on our side. If we can muster the courage, we will win.[19]

Rufo now spearheads the Stop Critical Race Theory project. The objective is “fighting against critical race theory through investigative reporting, grassroots organizing, and legal warfare.”

Global Tendencies

Meanwhile, the assault on Critical Race Theory has gone global in a kind of contagious moral panic. The French counterpart to Rufo is Pierre André Taguieff, who gave a three-part interview with Marianne in which he targets not just “Islamo-gauchisme”—a term he coined for a made-up pro-Jihad leftism—but also that American import, “Critical Race Theory.” And if in the U.S. there are state legislative efforts to ban CRT from governmental training programs and public education, in France, the Minister of Higher Education has initiated a probe into “Islamo-gauchiste” influences on research conducted in institutes of higher education.[20]

The attack on “Islamo-gauchisme” in France is directly linked to a criticism of U.S. critical theory on race. It’s race-consciousness that is the problem—a form of race acknowledgement and perceived separatism that threatens the republican values of the Fifth Republic. Norimitsu Onishi, in the New York Times, traces the assault on U.S. ideas in an important piece published February 9, 2021. He asks: “Will American Ideas Tear France Apart?” and, rightly, answers: “Some of Its Leaders Think So.”[21]

In England as well there is a swell against CRT. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times reports that in October 2020

the conservative government in Britain declared some uses of critical race theory in education illegal. “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” said the Tory equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch. “Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”[22]

There are, abroad, similar semantic slips as in the United States. In France, for instance, “Islamo-gauchisme” and CRT are elided so that, as an AOC article explains, they can both encompass everything that the opponents would like to undermine. CRT, it is argued, is itself racist itself, anti-capitalist, dangerously Marxist, anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and fundamentally divisive; “Islamo-gauchisme” is likewise associated with all sorts of dangerous anti-capitalist politics and, worse, terrorism.

While the trends in the U.S. and France are fueled by similar sentiments and desires—the wish to quell discussion around racial injustice—there are some important differences between the two. First, while the French backlash is primarily against leftist postcolonial and race studies scholarship within the French academy, part of the backlash is against what they see as the infiltration of American scholarship into the French academy. Second, because of the secular (“laïcité”) and “race-blind” ideals associated with French republicanism, the conversation encompasses both religion and race in France, whereas in the U.S., it is primarily around questions of race. Third, while CRT is a real category of academic study (although it has both been vastly broadened since its inception and is widely misunderstood by the Right), “Islamo-gauchisme” is a made-up label with no genuine affiliation. Fourth, the controversy in the U.S. is about CRT in both schools and public institutions, whereas in France, it concerns primarily more rarefied discourse in higher education. But the parallels nevertheless remain striking.

A Few More Points

Let me emphasize a few final points—three in particular. First, the turn to ideological warfare is by no means new. As I discuss in earlier writings, words and language—and more broadly, cultural warfare—have mattered to the Right for years now.[23] In fact, many of the key New Right texts, especially from the European New Right, consist, at their core, of dictionaries that redefine, recast, and infuse with political meaning ordinary language terms.[24]

Second, there were attacks on CRT before the Summer 2020 protests and the failed coup at the Capitol. Decades before, when President Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guiner to head the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ, her nomination was shot down in part because she was viewed as having championed critical race theory.[25] Fox News also attacked President Obama for allegedly consorting with Derrick Bell, a founder of critical race theory, already in 2012; and mentioned Critical Race Theory once in 2014 and twice in 2019.[26] But the real crescendo began right after the 2020 protests erupted in Spring 2020 and has continued to grow. “Since June 5, 2020, the phrase has been invoked during 150 broadcasts” on Fox News—as of early May 2021.[27]

Third, it is not only the Right that has attacked Critical Race Theory and race consciousness. In some cases, liberals have also taken part. Rufo actually advocates for a coalition of “conservatives and non-woke liberals.” In a “salvo” published on April 21, 2021, titled “Standing Against Critical Race Theory” in The American Mind, Rufo in fact subtitles his manifesto: “Conservatives and non-woke liberals must draw a line in the sand against racialized indoctrination.”[28] The ideological warfare, then, is not just from the Right—progressives and centrists as well take positions. It may be fair to say: the Right leads the ideological struggles, but it enlists the middle and even some progressive through a scare tactic. They deploy a fear technique: the centrists start to believe that they need to be careful and avert any danger of backlash. It’s a bit like when former President Barack Obama says that the “defund” campaign is too radical and counterproductive because it scares people away: “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done,” Obama said on a political talk show.[29] Many progressives agree with this sentiment and fear that blatantly antiracist or abolitionist talk will backfire and push the country away from the Democratic party. A good example is the attack on the 1619 Project by liberal historians—including Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon Wood—published in the December 29, 2019 issue of The New York Times Magazine. (For an excellent rebuttal to that letter, see Jake Silverstein’s article in the New York Times Magazine of Nov. 9, 2021).[30]


In the end, neither the culture wars nor the race wars are themselves new. But what is new is that, with the 2020 protest movements, the attack on CRT has become a fulcrum of the American Counterrevolution. The main battle front right now is words, language, ideas. And the efforts to ban what is being called “race and sex stereotyping” or “divisive concepts” are overtaking state legislatures and school boards around the U.S.



Readings on Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory has been completely distorted in the public imagination. To get a better sense of Critical Race Theory, it is best to go back to some of the original texts and syntheses. Here is a very short sample of some important texts to read:

  • Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: The New Press, 1996) (introduction here).
  • Derrick Bell, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” Harvard Law Review93, no. 3 (Jan 1980): 518-533.
  • Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241-1299.
  • Kendall Thomas, “Rouge et Noir Reread: A Popular Constitutional History of the Angelo Herndon Case,” 65 Southern California Law Review 2599 (1992).
  • Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
  • Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard, 1992).
  • Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1707-1791.
  • Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, “Critical Race Theory: An Annotated Bibliography,” Virginia Law Review79, no. 2 (Mar., 1993): 461-516.
  • Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: NYU Press, 2001).




[1] Adam Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession: How Conservative Politicians and Pundits Became Fixated on an Academic Approach,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2021.

[2] Christopher F. Rufo, “’White Fragility’ Comes to Washington: Profiteering Race Theorists Expand Their Footprint in the Federal Bureaucracy,” City Journal, July 18, 2020, available at

[3] Rufo, “’White Fragility’ Comes to Washington.”

[4] Rufo, “’White Fragility’ Comes to Washington.”

[5] Rufo, “’White Fragility’ Comes to Washington.”

[6] Fabiola Cineas, “Critical Race Theory, and Trump’s War on It, Explained,” Vox, Sept. 24, 2020, available here:

[7] Michelle Goldberg, “The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness,” New York Times, February 26, 2021,

[8] Cineas, “Critical Race Theory, and Trump’s war on it, explained.”

[8.5] Ellie Krasne, “How Leftists’ Critical Race Theory Poisons Our Discussion of Racism,” The Heritage Foundation, June 29, 2020,

[9] Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”

[10] Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”

[11] Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”

[12] Cineas, “Critical race theory, and Trump’s war on it, explained”; David Theo Goldberg, “The War on Critical Race Theory,” Boston Review, May 7, 2021,

[13] Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”

[14] Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”

[15] Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.”

[16] Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.”

[17] Emerson Sykes and Sarah Hinger, “State Lawmakers Are Trying to Ban Talk About Race in Schools,” ACLU, May 14, 2021,

[18] The Editors, “A Statement Regarding ‘Critical Race Theory,” American Mind, April 21, 2021,; Christopher Rufo, “Conservatives and non-woke liberals must draw a line in the sand against racialized indoctrination,” American Mind, April 21, 2021,; Jonathan Butcher and Mike Gonzalez, “Keep Racist Critical Race Theory Ideology Out of K-12 Classrooms,” The Heritage Foundation, April 22, 2021,; Mike Gonzalez and Jonathan Butcher, “Purging Whiteness To Purge Capitalism,” Heritage Foundation, May 5, 2021,; Ellie Krasne, “How Leftists’ Critical Race Theory Poisons Our Discussion of Racism,” The Heritage Foundation, June 29, 2020,

[19] Rufo, “The Courage of Our Convictions.”

[20] On “Islamo-gauchisme,” see Sonya Faure et Frantz Durupt, “Islamo-gauchisme, aux origins d’une expression médiatique,” Libération, April 14, 2016,; See also Corinne Torrekens, “Islamo-gauchisme, histoire d’un glissement sémantique,” AOC, February 22, 2021,

[21] Norimitsu Onishi, “Will American Ideas Tear France Apart? Some of Its Leaders Think So,” New York Times, February 9, 2021,

[22] Goldberg, “The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness.”

[23] See generally “Critique & the Alt-Right,” available here; read introduction here:

[24] They consist principally of what the New Right ideologues refer to as “Metapolitical Dictionaries.” Guillaume Faye’s Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance (Arktos, 2001), a key text of the European New Right, is essentially an alphabetized glossary – from pages 72 to 262, practically 200 pages of the 271-page book is definitional. Daniel Friberg too has a lengthy metapolitical dictionary in his The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition (2015), a key text of the Swedish New Right.

[25] Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.”

[26] Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.”

[27] Harris, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession.”

[28] Christopher Rufo, “Standing Against Critical Race Theory,” The American Mind, April 21, 2021.

[29] See Sara Fischer, “Obama: Broad Slogans Like ‘Defund the Police’ Lose People,” Axios, Dec. 1, 2020,; for an analysis of who agreed and disagreed with President Obama, see Rachel Ramirez, “Obama Said ‘Defund the Police’ Is A Bad Slogan. This Shouldn’t Come As A Surprise,” Vox, Dec. 3, 2020,

[30] The most damning passage in that article is the reference to Gordon Wood’s book review of Alan Taylor’s 2016 book, “American Revolutions,” in which Wood does not substantively object to an interpretation shared with the 1619 project, but asks pregnantly: “The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?”