The recent Republican push toward state-mandated literal whitewashing of American history to remove all that pesky racism and genocide has seen a lot of not-willfully-ignorant people stepping up to the historical plate. On Sunday, it was John Oliver’s turn at bat. His extra-long Last Week Tonight return from hiatus saw the reliably funny, research-supplied, and pissed-off Brit doing an especially comprehensive job of examining yet another area where white Americans’ perceptions of their history (and the inarguable and deeply inconvenient facts thereof) are skewed, predictably, in favor of said white people’s self-satisfied need to do nothing.
In his piece on housing discrimination, Oliver, as is his way, plucked out one representative case from which to expand his argument that the institutionalized bigotry in home ownership continues to undermine the potential of Black prosperity. In this case, Oliver’s pick of a depressingly voluminous litter came from Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan, California. That’s where a black couple’s valuable beachfront property was seized by the now-wealthy town, but only after even the most strenuous efforts of the local Ku Klux Klan failed to terrorize Willa and Charles Bruce from their legal residence. As Oliver put it in summarizing the way that the actions of government and cross-burning yahoos’ to disenfranchise Black Americans have always gone hand in soot-covered glove, “Sure, the vigilante racists are spooky, but you’ve really gotta worry when the motherfuckers with advanced degrees show up.”
Just to channel his most skeptical (and whitest) viewers for a moment, Oliver asked what’s to be done about this generations-old racist swindle, anyway? After all, didn’t Manhattan put up a nice plaque about how it stole a Black family’s land and put out a proclamation condemning the act but pointedly not apologizing? What more do the millions of Black Americans legally denied their chance top own property and accumulate wealth at the same rate as their white co-citizens want? (Psst, it rhymes with “steparations,” and Oliver asked his more historically clued in viewers to keep the answer under their hats until his wrap-up.)
Essentially preparing to act as a deeply necessary educational adjunct for GOP-controlled areas sweatily legislating Black history out of the classroom, Oliver’s story took the long view of racial discrimination in housing and home ownership. The long, ugly, racist, still-happening history. Did your American history class not cover your town’s centuries-long practices of block busting, redlining, and straight-up codified “racial covenants” (which are 100 percent as demonically evil as they sound)? Oliver’s here to fill on those gaps—gaps which conveniently reinforce white Americnas’ desperately clung-to “myth of white Americans’ post-war prosperity powered by ingenuity and self reliance.” (The widely-praised G.I. Bill excluded the millions of returning Black veterans from those wealth-building home loans and cushy interest rates almost entirely.)
Again addressing those—like Republican obstruction Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—saying we can’t be a racist country since we had a Black president that time, Oliver pointed out that, not only did Mitchie publicly state his intention to block President Obama’s agenda at every turn, he and his party are also urging us to “just move on” to avoid facing up to the consequences of what America has done. Oliver enlisted clips and references from such Fox News-demonized scholars as Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates to suggest that simply saying “the past is the past” is an awfully bland way of telling generations of Black Americans that nothing is ever going to be done about the artificially created and massive wealth gap between Black and white families, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Except, as Oliver laid out when the wrap-up finally came, there’s a lot that can be done to redress the decades of local and federal disenfranchisement, bigoted housing policy, and straight-up grand theft—it’s just that white Americans don’t want to pony up. Yup, housing reparations are, as Oliver says, not only right and just, but also a way to make up for “quantifiable harm done in our lifetimes to people who are still alive.” Just one example would be for Manhattan, California to take the $350 thousand it laid out not for public art saying, essentially, “Our bad—except we don’t apologize,” and giving it to the still very much living Bruce family. (Beachfront homes in California like the ones the Bruces were forced out of are worth millions today.)
A larger (but still paltry) way for the American government to actually close the home-ownership and wealth gap would be to undertake a targeted policy of investment and lending specifically to Black communities and individuals affected. Cutting off those hypothetical white viewers sputtering about the unfairness of only providing benefits to people based on skin color, Oliver stifled his laughter long enough to restate the fact that that’s exactly what the federal government has done all along. You know, but for the white people now telling everyone to just move on.