“Sadly, history isn’t always fun, weird mummy ventriloquy — it can be painful, too, as America has recently been reminded,” John Oliver said on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight. “Because George Floyd’s murder has forced a hard national conversation about this country’s present, which is impossible to do effectively without re-examining its past. And unfortunately, that’s not a conversation that all Americans are well-equipped to have.” Some attempts to explain the history of systemic American racism are aimed at persuadable skeptics. Oliver’s meta-history lesson, peppered with NSFW language, seems designed more for people who already see the problem and want to learn more.
“With so many people misunderstanding our history, either by accident or very much on purpose,” Oliver said, pointing at Fox News, “we thought tonight it might be a good idea to talk about how this history of race in America is currently taught in schools: What some of the gaps are, why they’re there, and how we can fill them.” The battle over how to teach history “has always been political,” and it was especially “intense” after the Civil War, he noted. “You know the saying, ‘History is written by the winners?’ The South set out to prove that wrong,” with some success. “The impulse to downplay the horrors of slavery has marked how schoolchildren have learned about it ever since,” he said, and that’s caused “real harm, because those kids grow up.”
Oliver focused on “three big mistakes that many historians believe that we make and should correct in schools and beyond,” including the role of white supremacy, viewing American history’s progress as “constantly and inevitably upward,” and the failure to “connect the dots to the present.”
Just last week, Trump tweeted about keeping low-income housing out of the suburbs. “What’s notable there is not that Trump’s being racist, which is not remotely surprising, it’s how neatly he fits in to a systemic racism that’s been baked into this country from the beginning and which will still be here when he is gone,” Oliver said. “And if kids aren’t taught this, what chance do they have to understand what’s happening right now?”
“History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world,” he said. “But history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve.” Peter Weber