Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I have been subscribing to Christopher Rufo for months for know-thine-enemy reasons.

He sends these long messages that you can read all the way through, right in your email inbox. The story he wants you to read and how he wants you to interpret it is right in front of your face. It’s easy, it’s convenient. He’s got a catchy subject line. You get drawn into reading. He might invite you to watch a well-produced video. At the end of each communication, there is a call to action: to help him in “the fight against Critical Race Theory” by donating. His format takes away every excuse you might have for not engaging with his content and contributing to his cause.

By contrast, I get an email from the Boston Center for Antiracist Research, headed by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an invitation to a symposium. I’ve gotten at least 5 communications from Christopher Rufo since the last time I heard from Kendi. The subject line is dull. The biggest thing in the email body is a grid of so many panelists that their pictures and the titles under them are too small to see well, even on my very large computer monitor. The longest text in the email body is a diversity and accessibility statement. This email is hard to read, and it is boring. The content after I click the “Register” button is boring.

I realize that these are different types of entities in that Rufo’s think tank exists to directly influence people and policy, and Kendi’s organization is very academic, and that these are the types of communication you’d expect to get from each.

But that difference is also part of the problem.

Christopher Rufo isn’t that interested in “research”. He uses the information he already has, and when new information comes in, he just adds it to his supporting material.

It seems those of us who really want to see an America free of white supremacy have yet to realize that we already know enough. By the turn of this century, Critical Race Theory leaders like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw had already produced a strong foundation that is still perfectly valid and relevant today. Ongoing research will always be important, but we have had enough to get out there and make a real impact for decades.

So why haven’t we?

Paralysis by analysis might be one reason. We’re far too concerned with being exactly right. There will always be new information coming in to make you realize after you’ve taken action on the “old” information that there was something you could have done better. That’s just a fact of life. Scientists have to deal with this all the time. Especially in this current political climate, there’s a risk of criticism that goes along with publicly making decisions based on the information you have now. People don’t always understand that policy and practice change as our knowledge changes. Antiracists, as social scientists, might have to do a better job of accepting this.

The primary difference, however, is pretty simple: marketing. We’re afraid of marketing.

Rufo and people like him who play on people’s fears to preserve white supremacist systems are just repulsive to us. He (or more likely his marketing people) intentionally designs his messages to induce emotional states that make an audience receptive and ready to take action. It’s also so loaded with logical fallacies and psychological manipulation that it offends my intelligence every time I force myself to read one of his email missives or watch one of his breathy, affected videos. It’s the power of storytelling but used for something bad.

We don’t want to stoop to Christopher Rufo’s level of psychological battery and manipulation. He operates on an abysmally low level ethically speaking, so wariness is a logical response for people with morals.

Ultimately though, it’s still just marketing. When he’s sending you his stupid, insulting emails, it’s marketing. His videos outlining what he claims are the sordid origins of Critical Race theory are framing his ideas in a way that makes people receptive to them, which is a function of marketing. He goes on television, and he’s using psychological manipulation — marketing — to promote his ideas. How does he get on the shows in the first place? Marketing, intentionally, carefully, crafted in every detail.

In contrast to people like Rufo, antiracists are at the other end of the spectrum in terms of how we expect to influence people. We’re telling the truth and we want to create positive change, and we think that’s enough. We consistently overestimate people’s ability and willingness to make sound judgments (or change their minds) based on facts alone. We’re too morally cautious, and we shy away from the psychological manipulation called marketing.

The reality is that while a small percentage of us are academics and value raw facts, the vast majority of Americans are going to need more context before the facts become useful. Most of us need storytelling and emotions around new information to make it meaningful and fully internalize it, let alone take action on it.

That is the gap that marketing concepts can fill.

Put the truth and ethics of the message aside for a moment. If there is an antiracist equivalent of Christopher Rufo in terms of the sheer volume and intentional design of communications, I haven’t found it.

It’s not just that Rufo hired better marketing people than Boston Center for Antiracist Research did. There is a key difference in attitudes between the way that thought leaders with belief systems similar to Rufo’s approach creating change, and the way Ibram X. Kendi and others fighting for an equitable society do. Rufo’s ilk are not afraid to use their knowledge of psychology and the way that people are already responding to current events to manipulate people’s thinking and behavior. Antiracists thus far have failed — or refused — to do that effectively.

The mere fact that behavioral psychology and marketing have been used very visibly to promote repugnant ideologies doesn’t make those methods of communication bad in themselves. It would not be unethical to design antiracist messaging around the way that people receive new information, learn, and change.

Unfortunately, right and wrong don’t determine which ideology wins. Marketing does. Until antiracists embrace the reality that we cannot just let the facts speak for themselves, and that designing the delivery of those facts is important, the people who do are going to keep getting the upper hand.

Artist, storyteller. My childhood in an ultra-conservative cult is a lens on constructs of race and patriarchy in America.