Critical Race Theory, Prison Culture Similarities Help Predict Where CRT Can Lead: Christopher Rufo

Critical Race Theory, Prison Culture Similarities Help Predict Where CRT Can Lead: Christopher Rufo
Filmmaker, policy researcher, and writer Christopher Rufo. (Courtesy of Christopher Rufo)
Ella Kietlinska
Joshua Philipp

Writer, filmmaker, and researcher Christopher Rufo realized while working on a documentary that the ideology of prison gangs that leads to racial segregation in prisons holds similarities to the critical race theory (CRT) being promoted in society.

Rufo noticed that although the phenomenon of prison gangs and the development of CRT are different and disparate, by comparing the two and analyzing the outcome of gang activities in the California prison system, he would be able to draw conclusions as to where CRT could lead society.

Rufo began exploring prison culture, gang culture, and street culture for a documentary he directed for PBS called “America Lost,” which looks at three of America's poorest cities—including Stockton, California—a city with a highly diverse racial makeup comprising white, black, Latino, and Asian populations.
“A lot of the prison gangs emerged with a black nationalist or Marxist Leninist ideology in California. They were tightly interconnected with the revolutionary movements of the late '60s and early 1970s,” Rufo said on EpochTV’s “Crossroads” program.
“And those same revolutionary movements, those same ideologies, from the Black Panther Party to Eldridge Cleaver [a Black Panther Party activist] to Angela Davis, were really a focal point and a key inspiration for the discipline of critical race theory.”
Angela Davis, a political activist, professor, and author, was leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1960s and had close ties to the Black Panther Party.

The operations of the California prison organizations led to the creation of an environment where a person isn't an individual but is reduced to a racial category, Rufo said.

“This is a world where you are not at liberty to choose your associations, but your associations choose you. And this is also a world where racial conflict is considered endemic, inescapable, and permanent—and that is an ugly vision of our society.”

Prison Gangs

 A prison guard escorts an inmate at California's San Quentin State Prison, on Aug. 15, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A prison guard escorts an inmate at California's San Quentin State Prison, on Aug. 15, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The current prison gangs in California adhere to strict racial policies and have “explicit racialist ideology,” according to Rufo. There are black nationalists, white nationalists, and kind of Latino nationalists among those gangs, Rufo said, “but a lot of it is really just pure protection and self-interest.”

When new inmates arrive in a prison in California, e.g. a jail in Stockton, they run the gauntlet of other prisoners and must make a quick decision to choose one of the prison groups: the blacks, the whites, the Latinos, or others that are combinations of different identities, Rufo said.

“And you're really chosen by these groups, you have to submit to the racial politics of the prison.”

There are separate facilities, lunch spaces, and trade networks for different identity groups in prisons, he said.

“And if you cross those lines, you're going to be in big trouble.”

The Black Panther Party, a political movement of the 1960s, recruited heavily from the prisons, Rufo said.

“Eldridge Cleaver wrote a lot about how prison shaped his politics.”

One of the current prison gangs, the Black Guerrilla Family, emerged from that political movement, he said.
Prison gangs are criminal organizations that originated within the penal system and they have continued to operate within prisons in the country, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), but they can also function outside of the prison system, the DOJ said.
“Typically, a prison gang consists of a select group of inmates who have an organized hierarchy and who are governed by an established code of conduct,” the DOJ stated.

Ideological Formation

The ideologies of Davis and Cleaver were explicitly Marxist–Leninist and advocated urban guerrilla warfare as a means of overthrowing American society, Rufo said.

Rufo said Davis and Cleaver had this idea that by forming prison gangs, revolutionary cells, and kidnapping and assassination squads—which were all ideologically driven—they could create a focus in their terminology that would eventually ripple out and then topple American society and all of its institutions.

Many prison gangs that espoused the explicitly political ideology of Davis and Cleaver have shed “all of the trappings of their social purpose or political purpose, and they became self-interested,” but some still remain political, such as the Black Guerrilla Family, Rufo said.
“This happened to a lot of the Black Panther leaders: They became drug dealers, pimps, common criminals, drug addicts, and they were doing things like robbing banks in order to feed cocaine habits.”

Critical Race Theory

 Children hold up signs during a rally against critical race theory being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Children hold up signs during a rally against critical race theory being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

When taught in schools, CRT is hugely destructive to kids, regardless of their racial groups, Rufo says.

This is an attempt to "inculcate new social norms," so that white students are aware of their "white privilege" and atone for it by ceding power and authority to oppressed groups, Rufo said. This also imposes white students’ complicity in white supremacy even if they have never done anything racist. By the virtue of their skin color, the students are guilty, he said.

On the other side, CRT holds that students who belong to racial minorities are inherently oppressed and have internalized their own racial inferiority because of the culture they live in, Rufo said. Moreover, it holds that their attempts to take control of their own lives to exercise their own human agency are doomed to failure because they live in a permanently and irreversibly racist society.

According to CRT, “all of our mechanisms of equal opportunity, of individual rights, of private property, are really mystifications, illusions that only serve white supremacy." The only option offered is to join the "political cause of critical race theory.”

CRT advocates abolishing all of these systems, the Constitution, and private property as the only way for an individual to achieve full racial equality, Rufo said.

The premise of CRT is that the kind of discrimination it imposes "is not truly discrimination, because you cannot discriminate against identity groups that hold power,” and that such discrimination is necessary to expose and then rectify those imbalances of power, he said.

Critical race theory is an offshoot of a Marxist branch of thought known as critical theory developed by the founders of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist scholars first associated with the University of Frankfurt in Germany and later with Columbia University in New York upon relocating to the United States.
CRT is based on the Marxist concept of class struggle, which divides people into two social classes: the bourgeoisie, "the oppressor,” and the proletariat, “the oppressed.” In CRT, however, the statuses of oppressor and oppressed are assigned to people on the basis of their skin color.

When doing his investigation for the documentary, Rufo went to prison as a journalist to observe the prison culture penetrated by gangs and racial segregation, and he talked to incarcerated people. Based on the experience, he tried to predict where the society infiltrated by critical race theory could head.

“There is assumed endemic permanent racial conflict as the principal organizing mechanism of prison society. It is one that prioritizes brutality and ruthlessness over every other virtue. And it's also one where the kind of worst ideologies and criminal enterprises flourish. And so it's not the kind of society that we want anywhere, including in prisons,” Rufo said.

“We don't want our classrooms, corporations, or societies to resemble this in any way, at any strength.

“There have been some attempts to break up some of the racial segregation in prisons, to disrupt some of these gangs and ideologies. They've all failed. It's too deeply entrenched.”

He said it should serve as a metaphorical or symbolic warning for all of us of what could happen to our social institutions if we're not really alert to hostile ideologies before they become entrenched.