It’s been a while, John Oliver. Namely since November, when Last Week Tonight closed out its eighth season by reassuring us that he and his staff would still have plenty of awful stuff to talk about in 2022. Unfortunately, as is his way, Oliver was right on the money, kicking off his first show of season 9 by doing a solidly infuriating half-hour on the newest farcically ginned-up conservative white panic boogeyman, Critical Race Theory.
As Oliver helpfully explained up top, the field of Critical Race Theory isn’t itself new. It’s a complex, grad-level field of legal study that examines how systemic and institutional bias influences the administration of justice and policy. Naturally though, that’s not what screaming white people at school board meetings, Fox News, and the state houses of some 37 states that have banned or limited discussion of systemic racism across the country think it is. Or, rather, most know full well that their kindergartener isn’t being assigned post-graduate-level homework about a copiously documented societal phenomenon, but have latched onto the CRT label in order to, as Oliver puts it succinctly, legally forbid “any conversation about race that somebody doesn’t want to have.”
Oliver, as is also his way, names names. Like one John Ragan, Tennessee Republican representative, who emotionally read out a supposed letter from a little white girl upset about being taught that racism exists, even as Oliver notes how nobody in the phantom child’s school district can find any evidence she exists. Or Fox News favorite anti-CRT talking head Christopher Rufo, whose self-admitted duplicitous campaign to paint literally any discussion of racial inequality as the nefarious plot of teachers to undermine the Constitution is instrumental in all those Facebook posts your racist uncle sends you. (Rufo’s ubiquity on Fox saw Donald Trump immediately ordering then chief of staff Mark Meadows to hastily pen an executive order banning federal diversity training immediately after one Tucker Carlson appearance.)
And then there’s Patti Menders, one of the organizers behind a particularly ugly school board protest by misinformed white people in Loudon County, Tennessee. Interviewed about her opposition to Critical Race Theory (again, not something being taught in Loudon public schools), longtime Republican strategist Menders is shown asserting that Loudon County can’t be racist because it’s so wealthy and predominantly white, before, as Oliver puts it, “snitching on [her] very soul” by pivoting hard to telling young Black men it’s their fault when they’re murdered by police because they’re not pulling up their pants and showing cops the proper respect.
It’s representative villainy to illustrate a larger point, and Oliver remains the master of the form. Is it glib and unfair to single out the most egregious examples to make that point? Well, not when Oliver spends the rest of his brutally on-point segment laying out the actual background and effects being sought by the people saying these stupid, deliberately misleading things. As Oliver notes, the manufactured furor over Fox News’ ludicrously broad smear campaign against literally any discussion of racism in America is part of the time-honored white tradition of using carefully groomed outrage to chill speech that dares suggest white America has a race problem.
Playing a gorge-inducing montage of white conservatives invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech as cover for their bullshit about how we’ve moved past all that pesky racism, Oliver provided the context such people perpetually leave out. “Some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism,” Dr. King is shown speaking later, to which he adds, presciently, that white people would use his words to construct “a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
Does that explain why so many white Americans are flooding beleaguered school officials and state governments with demands about everything from banning books and any classroom discussion that will cause their little darlings “discomfort” about race? Or joining white supremacist former Trump education official Betsy DeVos is trumpeting the need for “school choice” in order to allow parents to send their kids to private “segregation academies?” (Which were, and are, a real thing.) Partly.
But, as Oliver concludes (after reading his own suspiciously targeted and emotion-tugging letters from imaginary little white girls), while the increasingly heated and Fox-stoked rhetoric about Critical Race Theory are “very loud and very, very dumb,” they’re also very effective in motivating white Americans to do everything from ban books, to force educators out of their jobs, to gradually assure that “honest discussions of race will be shut out of public schools.” “Even a manufactured panic is a panic,” states Oliver about the rising wave of frothing white rage heading into the 2022 midterms, and urging, as ever, the judicious application of facts (and a little public mockery) to combat it.