Marc Lamont Hill and Christopher Rufo debate Critical Race Theory (and it’s pretty good)

You may have seen a bit of this circulating on Twitter or somewhere else. The entire discussion, which lasts about 25 minutes, is surprisingly thoughtful. This isn’t two guys shouting talking points at one another for five minutes. Both Hill and Rufo are trying to argue their case and there are some moments where they actually agree. But ultimately the discussion comes down to a debate over the concept of “whiteness.” This is the point where Hill is pushing a particular narrative and, try as he might, he just can’t get Rufo get go along with it.

“What does it mean to point out that racism actually exists? What does it mean to talk about whiteness as an idea?” Hill asked. He continued, “You would agree that whiteness is an actual thing, right? That there are things that you get in society simply by virtue of being white. Would you not agree with that?”

Rufo replied, “I think the idea of whiteness, it’s a pejorative label, right, that is a stand in for all sorts of negative terminology. So the idea that is being taught in public schools today, in places like Seattle and Portland that if you are a white student you have internalized whiteness, that is equivalent with being an unconscious white supremacist, that’s equivalent of being a racial oppressor.”

Hill then asked, “Do you identify as white?”

“I’m an Italian American so you tell me,” Rufo replied. “I think, like, my father was an Italian immigrant so he would be very confused. He’d say what do I have in common with a Swedish person or an English person or a German person. We’re totally different. We have different cultures, different languages, different customs. So I think that lumping people into white, black, Asian is such a crude and broad categorization…”

Hill’s response was that the thing Rufo has in common with a Swede or other group is whiteness. “If I were to say to you what do you like about being Italian, you could name lots of customs, lots of things. And you can deny being white, right, but that’s what whiteness studies is about. It’s about outing your whiteness. You can say you’re not white, you can pretend you’re not white—I’m not saying you’re doing that—but the world still treats you as white.

“If I were to say to you right now, Christopher, what do you like about being white what would you say?”

“Again, it’s such an amorphous term, it’s like a census term,” Rufo said.

“Indulge me for a minute,” Hill interjected. “I understand you see it as all these things but you surely recognize that the world sees you as white. You know the world reads you as white. And if you were to ask me things I like about being black I could talk about cultural norms, I could talk about tradition, I could talk about the kind of commonalities I feel around the diaspora. If I were to ask you, particularly if you’re saying whiteness is being constructed as negative and shouldn’t be, name something positive that you like about being white.”

At this point you can probably see that this question is meant to be a trap. Rufo has already said he sees himself not as part of generic whiteness but as Italian American.  Hill is just trying to push him to say something that will legitimize the idea that whiteness is something Rufo (and other Americans see as their identity). But Rufo refuses to be pushed into that corner.

He points out that some diversity trainers have identified things like timeliness and rationality as “white values” but that he disagrees and sees those as universal values.

Hill jumped in again: “You’re making straw men about things that are ascribed to whiteness that you think are wrongfully ascribed to whiteness. I’m saying…name something that you believe is positive about being white.” It’s the same question and still Hill refuses to take no for an answer.

“Again, I don’t buy into the framework that the world can be reduced into these metaphysical categories of whiteness and blackness,” Rufo said. He continued, “I think that’s wrong. I think we should look at people as individuals. I think we should celebrate different people’s accomplishments…The reason I’m not going to answer your question is I reject that categorization. I think of myself as an individual human being with my own capabilities and I would hope that we could both judge each other as individuals and come to common values on that basis.”

The clip ends with Hill’s litany of reasons why Critical Race Theory is necessary and, to be fair, some of his complaints are ones I’ve personally heard from black people over the years. You probably have heard some of them too from people you trust. So while I don’t agree with Hill that CRT is the solution to all of those problems, I do think he’s being sincere which is something that doesn’t always happen in this sort of debate. All in all, it’s a better, more interesting exchange than many I’ve seen on the topic. For instance, it’s a lot better than this take published by the Post yesterday which basically boils down to the accusation that anyone who disagrees with CRT is a lying racist.

Here’s the full interview. It’s pretty long so if you want to skip to the portion about “whiteness” jump forward to about 17:30.

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