“And I’m gonna warn you—you’re about to hear the ‘N-word,’ a lot.” That’s John Oliver during his main Sunday story on Last Week Tonight, and while he was providing a content warning to the caught-on-tape, supervillain-style political “Southern Strategy” of infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater, such a preamble could precede basically any in-depth discussion of American history. You know, because of the way that white supremacy was baked into the very foundational documents of American democracy and all. And if your hackles are already up at mentions of the Fugitive Slave Clause or that whole “Black people are valued at three-fifths of white people” parts of the Constitution, well, you’re either Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and/or a white product of the American public school system.
Oliver—fully acknowledging the sandy ground his British butt is speaking from, racist history-wise—spent a solid half-hour schooling America on how the codified and disseminated version of its own past continues to be part of an Atwater-esque plan to ensure the persistence of white supremacy by presenting “misleadingly comfortable versions of history.” How comfy? Well, there are textbooks referring to the forced labor of slaves as “chores,” or one Alabama text’s scolding of those “lazy” and “disobedient” enslaved Black people who didn’t uncomplainingly do what they were told. (Even though masters, according to the book taught to innumerable children for generations, sometimes threw their abused and exploited fellow human beings a nice BBQ.) Or, as one clip showed, one Black Tulsa resident explaining how he made it all the way to college before being informed about the white supremacist massacre of the thriving Black community that existed right in his own neighborhood. And don’t even get Oliver started on “the only coup d’etat ever to take place on American soil,” when a white mob murdered 60 Black people, removed the elected city government of Wilmington, North Carolina, and replaced said government with white supremacists. (No, you didn’t learn about that in history class, either.)
And while it’s easy to point to past and very, alarmingly present examples of egregious literal whitewashing of American white supremacy in schools, Oliver—as is his way—expanded the point admirably. Bringing in brand new examples of that history in action (like Donald Trump dogwhistling about the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” in bragging to his white supporters about undoing Obama-era rules against housing discrimination), Oliver showed how Americans’ ignorance of their own history (championed sweatily by present-day white supremacists like Ingraham, Carlson, and the vocal anti-1619 Project bullhorn inevitably named Tom Cotton) isn’t as much a result of bad study habits as of a calculated institutional plan.
Carrying on with another, all-too-recent milestone in American history, Oliver noted how the July 17 death of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis brought the glib and harmful lie of “American exceptionalism” as a guiding principle full circle. Explaining how American history’s discussion of race sort of “trails off” after its dutiful chapter on the Civil Rights Movement (even conveniently eliding the true name of the oft- and manipulatively cited March On Washington), Oliver played a clip of John Lewis’ words (read by Morgan Freeman no less) urging students of history to remember that the same battles, reactionary forces, and economic, social, and political schemes pushing back against racial justice have been going on since there were people. “The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time,” is Lewis’ call for a complete, nuanced, and productive examination of the actual truth of American history. Something that those invested in American—meaning white—exceptionalism understandably want no part of.