John Oliver gave a master class in the importance of understanding America’s true racial history and cited Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson as two of the worst misinformers.
The entire 28-minute monologue is worth watching, probably more than once. But the crux was Oliver’s statement that a distorted view of history is “definitely more palatable, especially for white people, and seeking out misleadingly comforting versions of history is a pattern that we’ve seen again and again this year.”
Oliver named Carlson as “perhaps the most absurd disconnect” when he smeared President Obama’s eulogy for Rep. John Lewis, calling Obama a “greasy politician” who threw out “stupid partisan talking points” by advocating for abolishing the filibuster. “Desecrating a funeral with campaign slogans, what kind of person would do that?” Carlson sneered.
“What kind of person would honor a friend’s legacy by continuing to advocate for voting rights?” Oliver responded. “You know what? I can think of one: John F***ing Lewis would do that.”
That was a launching point for Oliver to discuss the history of race in the U.S. and the need to fill in the gaps left by how it’s taught in schools.
The teaching about the Civil War and race “has always been political,” Oliver said. He gave examples of schools downplaying the horrors of slavery. The result is that many teachers “may have grown up learning the same skewed version of history that they are now passing on,” he added.
Oliver went on to cite three big mistakes in the teaching of history. The first is not fully acknowledging the history of white supremacy. “I know that any time someone suggests telling children anything less than Jesus would have been best friends with Abraham Lincoln, the pushback is fierce,” Oliver said. Case in point: Ingraham
OLIVER: Watch Laura Ingraham take one school board’s discussion of an anti-racist curriculum and spin it out into a dystopian vision designed to terrify her viewers.
INGRAHAM: Now, every subject, every extracurricular activity will be perverted to turn your kids into mini-Ilhan Omars. They’re going to learn that capitalism is racist. History, as conventionally taught, is racist. Literature – most of that’s racist. Patriotic songs, racist. And the Declaration and the Constitution – of course, they’re racist. Are you sensing a theme here?
Now, Laura Ingraham might not seem like someone capable of following anything apart from Black teenagers simply trying to shop at CVS, but I think she actually has picked up on a thing there because, seeing as she brought up the Constitution, let’s talk about it because that document is a lot of things genuinely revolutionary, and the foundation of an improbably long-lived democracy, but it’s also infused with and inextricably linked to slavery and a legacy of racial inequality. From the Three-Fifths Clause through the Fugitive Slave Clause, the Constitution both codified slavery and made it harder for individuals to escape it and the fact the Constitution is infused with racism does not mean it’s cancelled. It’s not a YouTuber who’s just now realizing it was wrong to do blackface for 14 years and it definitely doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t learn about it, but they should be taught to see it as an imperfect document with imperfect authors who both extolled the ideals of freedom for all while, at the same time, codifying slavery and that is possible to do.
Kids can understand that things can be racist and also other things.
Oliver called the second big mistake the myth that race relations have been on “a smooth, steady upward arc.” Often glossed over is the “white hostility and ugly backsliding” after the Civil War and before the civil rights movement, he said.
“The Laura Ingrahams of the world” probably think Martin Luther King’s dream came true, Oliver said, then explained how it hasn’t.
OLIVER: It turns out that Martin Luther King had more than one dream and one of them was about wealth redistribution. … The truth is the civil rights movement was longer, messier, more radical and, crucially, was thwarted in more of its aims than many of us were taught in school.
And that led Oliver to what he sees as the third mistake in teaching history:
OLIVER: We don’t connect the dots to the present … black/white wage and wealth gaps, they are both larger now than they were when King gave that speech and our housing and education systems, even in liberal cities like New York and L.A. are still shamefully segregated.
The truth is, you can draw a straight line from the post-Civil War return of plantation land to former Confederates through the massive transfers of land by the Homestead Act, mostly to white individuals, through the growth of the suburbs in the 20th Century, where redlining kept Black people from moving into white neighborhoods throughout the country.
One of the problems with the way that we teach history is that too often, it sort of trails off after the civil rights movement and when you skip over the past half-century, you don’t get to see the process by which white supremacy, instead of disappearing, merely adapted.
While it might seem obvious, history isn’t over yet. It’s still being written and you know who understood that? John Lewis.
There's a lot more in this that I didn't have the time to go into. So watch it below, from the August 2, 2020 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In my view, it’s as much a masterpiece about race and as masterful a Lewis eulogy as Obama’s.