Remember last week, when the president of the United States sent out a transparently racist tweet about “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” no longer having to worry about low income housing being built near their homes? Hell, if you don’t, here’s the tweet: technology lets us embed them directly into articles, so let’s do it.
This is a surprising tweet, not because it’s racist—we’ve known that about Trump for decades—but because a guy who became president in part because he embraced blatant racism actually tried to dog whistle a bit right here. I mean, he failed at it, and was so overt in his racism that anybody could see it, but he at least tried to couch it in a euphemism that might’ve actually worked for some people, oh, 70 years ago.
On last night’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver lays out crucial context for that tweet. His main segment was about America’s absolute refusal to examine its own history of slavery, oppression and white supremacy in the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and how the way our history has been taught in schools into the 21st century has helped perpetuate that white supremacy. From text books that claim that the Civil War was solely about states’ rights and that whitewash the horrors of slavery, to our educational system’s general failure to cover the renewed institutionalization of systemic white supremacy from Reconstruction into the 20th century, Oliver lays out how politics have always driven how history is taught and understood, and how those who grow up learning bad history can continue to perpetuate it when they become the leaders of a country and its culture. The current hostility and divisiveness in America, from the witless racism of a dullard TV conman turned president, to the armed paramilitary response to protesters, all grow out of our history of white supremacy, a history that we as a country have never atoned for, and that we have consistently ignored and lied about in our own history classes.
This is a long segment for Oliver—almost a full half-hour—and a particularly heavy one, but it has all the hallmarks of a great Last Week Tonight segment. It’s a timely look at a massive issue in our society that’s both depressing and infuriating, but peppered with biting comedy delivered in a tone of sharp, exasperated disbelief. Check it out.