The research is meticulous, and the details are forensic. Many previous intellectual biographies of thinkers like Bell, a Harvard law professor who fathered the discipline of crt, and Freire, a Brazilian education scholar who developed his influential “pedagogy of the oppressed”, are written by smitten disciples and seemed more like religious apologia than rigorous history. Mr Rufo’s methodical recounting of their radical ideas—pushing to deconstruct the concept of merit, abolish prisons, dismantle capitalism and develop “revolutionary consciousness” in schoolchildren—is refreshingly sceptical. It is also difficult to dispute, given that the most incendiary points are usually delivered by quoting the thinkers directly.
The mostly restrained accounting, given Mr Rufo’s reputation for stoking controversy, gives the entire work a cerebral feel. “The elements of critical race theory are, in fact, a near-perfect transposition of race onto the basic structures of Marxist theory,” he writes. Through the recounted history, some worrying trends in American life make more sense. Universities are hiring based on applicants proffering the right answers to “diversity statements”, and Californian pupils will be required from 2025 to take ethnic-studies courses that will help, in the state’s words, “challenge racist, bigoted, discriminatory, and imperialist/colonial beliefs” and “connect ourselves to past and contemporary movements that struggle for social justice”.