U.S. History: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver – Transcript

John Oliver takes a look at how the history of race in America is taught in schools, how we can make those teachings more accurate, and why it’s in everyone's best interest to understand the most realistic version of the past.
U.S. History: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 7 Episode 20
Aired on August 2, 2020

Main segment: United States history

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John: Hi there! Welcome to the show. Still taking place in this blank void that looks very much like the inside of an egg, from the off-white walls to the eerie silence to the creature in the middle who resembles an unborn chicken. You’re getting the full egg experience right now.

And let’s dive straight in with the coronavirus, the reason that we’re all googling “face mask droplets” and then doing it again but with the safe search on. This week saw the grim milestone of 150,000 deaths in the U.S., Which you would think would impel people here to take the virus seriously. Yet stories keep cropping up of massive gatherings, from at least 43 people testing positive for coronavirus after attending a Michigan house party, to more than 700 people attending a New Jersey Airbnb party, prompting this response from the governor.

[Gov. Phil Murphy, (D) New Jersey] Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s summer. Yes, we all want, and in many cases, need, to blow off some steam, but this is no time for anyone to be vying for induction into the knucklehead hall of fame.

John: Yeah, and for the record, New Jersey’s knucklehead hall of fame is Bennies; that gabagool from Philly who thought he could pump his own gas; Chris Christie; Chris Christie again because of that time he sat on the beach; Ralph Cifaretto; slow drivers; fast drivers; and Jared Kushner. Yeah! Jared’s from Jersey! I know he looks like he just emerged from a vat of vaseline fully formed as a shiny haunted hate mannequin, but he’s actually from the garden state. And that wasn’t even the most irritating recent mass gathering.

[NBC News] This morning, this viral video from a Chainsmokers concert in the Hamptons over the weekend, with fans seemingly ignoring all social distancing, has New York’s governor up in arms.

John: what are you doing? Imagine risking your life to see the Chainsmokers. Although it at least adds a new dimension to their lyrics, now that “we ain’t ever getting older” could reasonably be followed by “because we contracted a deadly virus at our stupid concert in Southampton.” And to be fair, the event organizers and performers say that they followed all CDC and state guidelines. And they certainly did their part to try and drive people away.

[NBC News] The concert also featured a performance by Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who moonlights as a DJ.

John: Yes. He does. He apparently calls himself “DJ D-Sol,” and on Spotify, he has not one, not two, but seven remixes of the r&b classic “Rescue Me,” all of which are — and I say this as respectfully as possible — fucking garbage.

And while I personally don’t understand the attraction in watching DJ business Bruce Willis hit play on an iPhone, it is clear, recklessness is abounding right now, heightening the need for strong leadership. But unfortunately, we’re getting the exact opposite of that. Just a week after Trump was given credit for “shifting his rhetoric” by urging Americans to wear masks, he did something that, even for him, was shockingly reckless.

[ABC News] The president again used his Twitter account to spread misinformation, tweeting video of a doctor denouncing the use of masks and promoting hydroxychloroquine. That doctor, who was only licensed to practice medicine in Texas last November, has a history of outrageous statements, such as saying health problems can be caused by demons.

John: Yeah! That’s pretty upsetting coming from a doctor. You’d expect that bullshit from some idiot who claims to know about medicine but doesn’t have a medical license, like your dipshit uncle or dr. Phil. But from a licensed medical professional, that is wildly irresponsible. She’s also reportedly claimed that alien DNA is being used in medical treatments, the government is run by reptilians, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from becoming religious. Which, look, we already have that last one. It’s called Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Pop that DVD in and 79 minutes later you’ll be convinced no god would let this happen. And when her comments were pointed out to the president, he refused to back down.

[Donald Trump] She was on air along with many other doctors. They were big fans of hydroxychloroquine, and I thought she was very impressive in the sense that, from where she came — I don’t know which country she comes from, but she said that she’s had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients. And I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her.

John: Wow. He thinks her voice is important but admits to knowing nothing else about her. That is not the philosophy you want when vetting medical experts. It’s barely a philosophy you want on “The Voice.” Sure, the judges start by knowing nothing about the contestants besides their voice, but once their interests are piqued, they know to turn the fuck around to investigate. And downplaying the risks of this can have dire consequences. On Thursday, Herman Cain died, about six weeks after attending a Trump rally in Tulsa where he was photographed without a mask, later tweeting that “people are fed up” of being made to wear them. And this, sadly, won’t be the last time we see people find out the hard way how serious this is. Because on Wednesday, yet another member of congress tested positive.

[CNN] Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, spotted on Capitol Hill just yesterday maskless, walking near attorney general Bill Barr, getting his diagnosis at the white house this morning. But Gohmert didn’t immediately isolate himself. Instead he returned to his congressional office to tell his staff in person.

John: What? If that’s true, it’s absurd. Because “I’m carrying a highly infectious disease” is never news that needs to be told in person, especially when there are plenty of better ways to do it. You could hire a skywriter to write “I’m posi for corona.” You could make a custom crossword puzzle that spells out “your boss has the corona.” You could go on cameo and get Steve Guttenberg to record a message for them. Seriously, he’ll do it. Look.

[Steve Guttenberg] Hey, quick message for Louie Gohmert’s staff: your boss has the ‘rona. Obviously he’d have to be a complete idiot to tell you that in person, so he got me, Steve Guttenberg, to tell you instead. Anyway, stay 6 feet away or more from him and wear a mask, for a little while. Or maybe, forever, I don’t know. Anyway, I was in Police Academy! Okay, bye!

John: Best $150 I ever spent, easily.

Now, Gohmert insists he notified his staff by phone, and only then did he visit his office, wearing a mask. But showing up in person at all is still the level of cluelessness you’d kind of expect from a guy who always looks like he hasn’t yet realized his toupee blew off. And this is reportedly just the beginning of his staff’s problems with him.

[CNN] This is a letter from an aide to Louie Gohmert, politico says. “Thank you for letting our office know Louie tested positive for coronavirus.” “When you write your story, can you include the fact that Louie requires full staff to be in the office, including three interns, so that we can be an example to America on how to open up safely. When probing the office, you might want to ask how often were people berated for wearing masks.”

John: Wow. And while Gohmert disputes that claim too, it goes without saying, nobody should be berated for wearing a mask. Unless, of course, it’s hanging below their chin, which is a bit like putting a diaper around a baby’s ankles. You clearly do not understand how butts work.

And look, this reckless indifference — whether it’s coming from these idiots, this idiot, that idiot, this especially idiotic idiot, or the most powerful idiot of all — is costing people their lives. And it’s past time that we start protecting each other and taking this seriously. Because thanks to these guys, the knucklehead hall of fame is getting pretty fucking crowded. And now this.


Announcer: And now, for an extra $150, Steve Guttenberg brainstorms names for our co-worker’s new dog.

[Steve Guttenberg] Let’s see. Daisy, Daniel. Frank. Bingo. Sport. Virginia Woof. Bumblebee. Oh, dr. Wags-a-lot. But, you can never go wrong with Bingo.

Announcer: Aw, thanks, Steve.

* * *


John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns history, a subject so fascinating, we’re sometimes willing to do crazy experiments like this:

[CBS this Mornings] Scientists were able to mimic Nesyamun’s voice by recreating his mouth and vocal cords with a 3D printer. It allowed them to produce a single sound.

[Electronic voice] Eh. Eh. Eh.

John: Excellent. Finally an answer to the question that scholars have asked for ages: what would an ancient Egyptian sound like if he orgasmed while taking antidepressants?

But look, sadly, history isn’t always fun, weird mummy ventriloquy. It can be painful too, as America has recently been reminded, 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, because there are some embarrassing gaps in many people’s knowledge of U.S. history. Just look what happened a few weeks back, when the president, in the midst of nationwide black lives matter protests, announced plans to hold a rally in Tulsa on June 19th, a decision astonishingly tone-deaf for two key reasons.

[Today] Next Friday, June 19th, is “Juneteenth,” an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. As for Tulsa, 99 years ago this month in 1921, the city witnessed the Tulsa race massacre, one of the nation’s worst outbreaks of racial violence, recently portrayed in HBO’s Watchmen.

John: Now, the reason they’re mentioning Watchmen there is, a lot of Americans learned about the Tulsa race massacre for the very first time, nearly a century after it happened, from watching that show. Basically, the night that episode aired, many white Americans went, “holy shit! I had no idea this happened!” While many black Americans went, “holy shit! White people are going to freak the fuck out when they find out this happened! Debbie at work is going to want to have a conversation.”

The coverage of that Trump rally didn’t just introduce many Americans to that massacre, but also to the very concept of Juneteenth, the day that commemorates when union troops informed Texas that enslaved people that must finally be freed, two years after the emancipation proclamation, by the way. A recent poll showed a shocking 48% of Americans were either “not at all” or “not very aware” of Juneteenth. Which is not good. I mean, it’d be fine if nearly half of Americans were unaware of Groundhog Day, the meaningless date when an idiot dressed like goth Willy Wonka holds up a non-clairvoyant woodchuck whose face somehow screams “I have better things to do.”

But Juneteenth actually means something. And that’s just one of many gaps in knowledge that some are now realizing they have. Just watch Joy Behar try to explain why statues of George Washington should be left alone, and in doing so, actually learning something.

[The View, ABC]

[Joy Behar] But George Washington, besides being a founding father and a great general and somebody who was so instrumental in this union that we have, in this republic, also freed his slaves. So if you’re gonna take somebody down, take down —

[Sunny Hostin] Mmm.

[Joy Behar] Thomas Jefferson, who didn’t — who didn’t free his slaves. No? Sunny disagrees.

[Sunny Hostin] He didn’t free his slaves.

[Whoopi Goldberg] He didn’t.

[Sunny Hostin] He actually spent the last year of his life —

[Joy Behar] Oh.

[Sunny Hostin] Ret — like, relentlessly pursuing slaves that tried to run away. He was a horrible slave owner.

John: Yeah, he was. As usual, Sunny Hostin is very right, and Meghan McCain is very “there.” Because, while Washington did promise to free his slaves in his will, it specified they wouldn’t gain their freedom until his wife’s death. So only one person was freed immediately after Washington died out of over a hundred. Also, he actually became a slave owner at just 11 years old — a fact so horrifying, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with it. At the very least, the story of him chopping down a cherry tree as a child and admitting it to his father by saying “I cannot tell a lie” gets way less charming if the next part is his parents saying, “thank you for being honest, George. As a reward, here are some human beings to own.”

And the thing is, Joy Behar’s version of history, while distorted, is definitely more palatable, especially for white people, and seeking out misleadingly comforting versions of history is a pattern we’ve seen again and again this year. From the number-one movie on Netflix during the protests following George Floyd’s murder being The Help, to just last week, when senator Tom Cotton said schools should lose federal funding if they teach a curriculum based on The New York Times” 1619 project, which brings slavery into the forefront of american history. And perhaps the most absurd disconnect was, in the wake of president Obama’s speech at a — eulogy for John Lewis this week, in which obama advocated for abolishing the filibuster to protect the voting rights act, Tucker Carlson had this to say:

[Tucker Carlson] Imagine if some greasy politician showed up at your loved one’s funeral and started throwing around stupid partisan talking points about senate procedure. Can you imagine that? You would be shocked if that happened. You would probably walk out. Desecrating a funeral with campaign slogans, what kind of person would do that?

John: Wait. What kind of person would honor a friend’s legacy by continuing to advocate for voting rights? I can think of one. John fucking Lewis would do that.

And the truth is, with so many people misunderstanding our history, either by accident or very much on purpose, we thought tonight it might be worth talking about how the history of race in America is currently taught in schools — what the gaps are, why they’re there, and how we can fill them. And let’s start with the fact that there are no national standards for what topics or figures students must learn about at school. And state standards vary widely. When CBS looked into it this year, it found “seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards,” only two mention white supremacy, while 16 list states’ rights as a cause of the civil war. And we actually did a whole 21-minute piece about what’s wrong with that argument, but this clip explains it significantly quicker.

[Huffpost, 2019]

The root cause of the civil war is clear.

What caused the civil war was —


The main cause and why the south decided to secede was —


So, why do our history textbooks get it so wrong?

Y’all don’t want to deal with the fucked-up shit that y’all ancestors did.

John: yeah, that pretty much sums it up. It can be hard to deal with what your ancestors did — trust me, I’m British. One of our most famous tourist attractions is a castle where we executed people for centuries and have now filled with stolen jewels, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond — which, according to the tower’s website, was “presented to Queen Victoria.” And that verb is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. It was “presented” in pretty much the same way that India was, insomuch as it was present and Britain fucking took it.

And for all the current hand-wringing about how any changes would politicize U.S. history, it’s worth remembering that the teaching of it has always been political. After the civil war, the battle over how history would be told in textbooks was intense. Because you know the saying “history is written by the winners? The south set out to prove that wrong. One organization, called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, campaigned for schools to adopt textbooks that would “accord full justice to the south,” telling librarians to write “unjust to the South” on the ones that didn’t. Which is clearly absurd. That’d be like a librarian writing “Unjust to Voldemort” on Harry Potter‘s one through seven or “Unjust to Whale” on Moby Dick or “Unjust to L. Ron Hubbard” on Leah Remini’s Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology.

But that impulse — to downplay the horrors of slavery — has marked how schoolchildren have learned about it ever since. A Georgia textbook from the ’50s claimed, “the master often had a barbecue or a picnic for his slaves. Then they had a great frolic.” And look, every excuse for slavery is shitty, but “we gave them sandwiches sometimes” has to be one of the shittiest. And some who learned history from books like those couldn’t believe what they were being told at the time — just watch this Alabama schoolteacher revisit her fourth-grade textbook, “Know Alabama”:

[Francina Morales, Teacher] “Some slaves were good workers and very obedient. Many took pride in what they did and loved their cabins and the plantation as if they actually owned them. Others were lazy, disobedient, and sometimes vicious.” I wonder what kind of slave I would have been. I wonder if I would have been one of those lazy slaves who just were not willing to work for nothing or disobedient because I just didn’t want to be a slave.

John: Yeah. That contempt is fully merited there. Because among other things, the idea that being a “lazy” slave was a character flaw, as opposed to a frequent act of protest against a brutally unjust system, is infuriating. And it makes “Know Alabama” sound less like the title of that textbook and more like something you’d yell at it: “No, Alabama! Stop that! Bad textbook! No!” And those passages were in the standard Alabama history textbook into the ’70s. So people who read them and may have been shaped by their content are now in their 50s, doing things like running businesses or holding elected office.

And while newer textbooks may not be quite that egregious, there are still problems. Earlier this year, one historian flagged a pretty remarkable euphemism in a current Texas schoolbook:

[CBS This Morning] This is a picture, and the caption says, “some U.S. settlers brought slaves to Texas to help work the fields and do chores.” And, you know, I don’t — I don’t think we should describe slave labor as chores.

John: Yeah, we shouldn’t. Calling slave labor “chores” is a euphemism on par with calling Hitler a “best-selling author with a side hustle,” or JFK’s assassination a “bad hair day” or this “a comedy show.”

And look, state standards and textbooks are just a baseline here. What happens in a classroom largely depends on teachers, who have a very difficult job, often working with scant resources, meaning that, among other things, they may not be able to get updated versions of textbooks. And some work really hard to correct poor materials. But others can actually make things even worse, with tone-deaf assignments and classroom exercises that you may be familiar with from local news stories like these:

[, 2020] This is the activity in question. It asks students to choose to be a slave or a slave owner, and then to write a journal entry that describes daily activities before the civil war.

[KTVI, 2019] The question about slavery read, “you own a plantation or farm and therefore need more workers. Set your price for a slave. These could be worth a lot.

[] This North Carolina grandmother couldn’t believe the assignment given to her fourth grader.

[] And then this game is called “escaping slavery.”

[] A slavery-themed monopoly-like game students played in elementary school. Children worked in small groups, got this “freedom punch card.” If the group ran into trouble, the card said they’d be severely punished and sent back to the plantation to work as a slave.

[] Were they gonna hang them? Were they gonna kill ’em?

John: What the fuck are you doing there? You can’t reduce a person’s freedom from slavery down to what is basically a Jimmy John’s punch card. And just imagine what it would feel like to be a black kid in that classroom — or, if you don’t have to imagine, remember. Because it’s not just the history that hurts here, it’s how you’re being made to feel while you learn it. And the frequency with which stories like those tend to crop up may have something to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of school teachers are white and many may’ve grew up learning the same skewed version of history that they’re now passing on. And when you take all this together, we’re giving kids incomplete educations in history, while also doing real harm. Because those kids grow up. Just listen to this guy from Tulsa explaining how he felt when he finally found out about that 1921 massacre where he lived.

[Damario Solomon-Simmons, Civil Rights Attorney] When I went to OU in 1998, I was sitting in a class of African-American history. And the professor was talking about this place where black people had businesses and had money and had doctors and lawyers. And he said it was in Tulsa. And I raised my hand, I said, “no, I’m from Tulsa. That’s not accurate.” And he was talking about this massacre, riot. I said, “man, what are you talking about?” I said, “I went to school on Greenwood. I’ve never heard of this ever.”

John: That’s terrible. And his school really let him down there. Think of the emotional whiplash that man went through. He found out something amazing had once existed right where he lived, something horrible had taken it away, and that the history had been kept from him. And all of this had happened less than a hundred years ago. The dinosaurs died 65 million years ago, and you’d still be floored if someone only just told you about them. “I’m sorry, there were what? Where? What do you mean, ‘everywhere’? And they were how big? Some of them could fly? What happened to them? Oh, no! How the fuck is this the first time someone’s mentioning this to me?”

Look, it’s pretty clear we need to upgrade the way we teach our history. And while I obviously don’t have time to go through all of that history right now, it might be worth going slowly through three big mistakes that many historians believe we make and should correct in schools and beyond. The first is that we don’t fully acknowledge the history of white supremacy in america, from its founding to the present day. And I know that anytime someone suggests telling children anything less than “Jesus would have been best friends with Abraham Lincoln,” the pushback is fierce. Watch Laura Ingraham take one school board’s discussion of an anti-racist curriculum and spin it out into a dystopian vision designed to terrify her viewers.

[Laura Ingraham] Now, every subject, every extracurricular activity will be perverted to turn your kids into mini Ilhan Omars. They’re gonna learn that capitalism is racist, history as conventionally taught is racist, literature — most of that’s racist — patriotic songs, racist. And the declaration and the constitution, of course, they’re racist. Are you sensing a theme here?

John: Now, Laura Ingraham might not seem like someone capable of following anything, apart from black teenagers simply trying to shop at CVS, but I think she has picked up on a theme there, because, seeing as she brought up the constitution, let’s talk about it. That document is a lot of things — genuinely revolutionary and the foundation of an improbably long-lived democracy — but it is also infused with and inextricably linked to slavery and a legacy of racial inequality. From the three-fifths clause through the fugitive slave clause, the constitution both codified slavery and made it harder for individuals to escape it. And the fact the constitution is infused with racism does not mean it’s canceled. It’s not a youtuber who’s just now realizing it was wrong to do blackface for 14 years. And it definitely doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t learn about it. But they should be taught to see it as an imperfect document with imperfect authors who both extolled the ideals of freedom for all while at the same time codifying slavery. And that is possible to do. Kids can understand that things can be racist and also other things. The constitution can be revolutionary and also racist. Movies can be romantic and also racist. Children’s books can be charming and also racist. Broadcasters can be incredibly successful and also racist. And if kids are taught an incomplete history, they either never get the full story or, when they do, don’t have the framework to understand how the pieces fit together. Here’s one professor, explaining how hard it can be for his students learning the whole truth about Thomas Jefferson.

[Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Professor, Ohio State University] What that child is then gonna do is say, “wait a minute, why didn’t I know this before? I’ve been running around here singing Thomas Jefferson’s praises and I didn’t realize that he’s the R. Kelly of his time.”

[Newsy] So while it may be uncomfortable, he says you have to be honest.

[Hasan Kwame Jeffries] I swear Ohioans suffer from underground railroad-itis, right?

[Interviewer] Oh, yeah.

[Hasan Kwame Jeffries] You ask them, “who would have been — who would have been for the underground railroad?” Right? In class, every, every white hand goes — I mean, look, if all y’all would have been down for the underground railroad, this [bleep] wouldn’t have been underground, right? There would have been no need for it.

John: Okay, first of all, it says a lot about Jefferson that, if you went back in time, explained to him who R. Kelly was, and told him he was being compared to him, the child pornography charges would not be the number one reason he’d be insulted by the comparison. But that professor makes a really good point. The less you know about history, the easier it is to imagine you’d always be on the right side of it, because the truth is, the history of America is a history of changing an America that badly does not want to be changed.

That actually brings us to the second common mistake we make: viewing American history’s progress as if it was constantly and inevitably upward. Too often, u.s. History is reduced down to, “there was slavery, then there was a civil war, then there wasn’t slavery anymore, then there was a civil rights movement, then there wasn’t racism anymore.” Just a smooth, steady upward arc. But the moments on either side of those landmark eras complicate the hell out of that arc, because they were filled with white hostility and ugly backsliding.

Take the century between the end of the civil war and the civil rights act, which is often glossed over but should probably be taught a lot more thoroughly. It begins with reconstruction, a dozen or so years of real promise, when, very basically, the south was forced to redraw their constitutions and permit the registration of black voters. That’s right, black men in the south were voting in the 1860s and 1870s. When they fought for the voting rights act in the 1960s, they were fighting to get back something they’d already had. The effects of reconstruction were almost immediate, with an estimated 2,000 black men serving in elective office during that era, including a number in congress. And just look at these guys. A-plus achievement, a-plus-plus facial hair. And sure, you think you can grow your mustache into your beard — try it, you fucking can’t.

But in response to that progress, white people pushed back and pushed back hard. The KKK was founded, 2,000 black people were lynched, and by 1877, the south had regained local control. Here is a crazy story you might not know: in 1898, the multi-racial city government in Wilmington, North Carolina, became the target of the “only coup d’etat ever to take place on American soil,” in which a mob of up to 2,000 armed white men killed at least 60 black residents and replaced the city’s aldermen with white supremacists. And if this is the first time you’re learning about the only coup on american soil, you’re not alone, because what happened there is usually either not taught at all, or, as the author of a book on that massacre points out, taught very, very misleadingly.

[David Zucchino, Author] Here’s from a 1949 textbook quote, “a number of blacks were jailed for starting a riot and a new white administration took over Wilmington’s government,” end quote.

John: Yeah. That’s it. And that is not just denying what happened — it’s even worse. It’s placing the blame for it on the victims. Technically, you shouldn’t even call it a history book so much as “a book of lies because we kind of felt a bit weird about that whole violent racist coup thing.”

And Wilmington wasn’t even the midpoint of that century of backsliding. And the Laura Ingrahams of the world will probably say, yeah, that’s all ugly, but in a sign of American exceptionalism, the civil rights movement ended all of that when Martin Luther King’s dream came true. And that is the version that most americans are taught in school. But it leaves a lot out. In fact, take the march on Washington. That wasn’t actually its full name. It was called the “march on Washington for jobs and freedom,” and the economic justice part of it was front and center. King actually grew more outspoken about that issue in the years that followed. And King himself understood why it was harder to make progress on that front.

[Martin Luther King Jr.] It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.

John: Yeah, it turns out that Martin Luther King had more than one dream. And one of them was about wealth redistribution. So while I know it’s easy to distort King’s full legacy down to that one soaring speech, point to the cast of “this is us,” and say, “see? We did it, everyone. Everything is fixed now.” The truth is, the civil rights movement was longer, messier, more radical, and, crucially, was thwarted in more of its aims than many of us were taught in school.

And that brings us to the final point, which is that we don’t connect the dots to the present. And those dots are very much there. Look at the black-white wage and wealth gaps. They’re both larger now than they were when King gave that speech. And our housing and education systems, even in liberal cities like New York and L.A., are still shamefully segregated. And if you don’t teach history properly, all you see is those effects and not the causes, when the truth is, you can draw a straight line from the post-civil war return of plantation land to its former confederates through the massive transfers of land through the homestead act — mostly to white individuals — through the growth of the suburbs in the 20th century, where red-lining kept black people from moving into white neighborhoods throughout the country. In fact, just listen to this woman in Levittown, Pennsylvania, explain her objections to a black family moving to town in 1957 with some real honesty.

[“Crisis in Levittown” (1957) Dynamic Films]

[Woman] We liked the advantages that Levittown seemed to offer in comparison to other cities. And we understood that it was going to be all white and we were very happy to buy a home here.

[Interviewer] Do you think a negro family moving here will affect the community as a whole?

[Woman] Definitely. The whole trouble with this integration business is that, in the end, it probably will end up with — with mixing socially. And you will have — well, I think their aim is mixed marriages and becoming equal with the whites.

John: Wow. It is always weird to hear someone — whether or not they look like summer casual Betty Crocker — frame “human beings being treated equally” as a negative. It’s like hearing someone say “the whole trouble with putting Graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows together is that we might end up with s’mores.” Yeah, exactly. That’s a good thing. Only a fucking monster wouldn’t want that.

And it might not surprise you to see that someone was incredibly racist in the 1950s. But one of the problems with the way we teach history is that, too often, it sort of trails off after the civil rights movement. And when you skip over the past half-century, you don’t get to see the process by which white supremacy, instead of disappearing, merely adapted. And perhaps nobody made that process clearer than Lee Atwater, a top republican campaign strategist who worked for, among others, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Here he is spelling out the whole game in 1981 — and I’m going to warn you, you’re about to hear the n-word a lot.

[Lee Atwater, Republican Campaign Strategist] You start out in 1954 by saying, “n i g g e r, n i g g e r, n i g g e r.” By 1968, you can’t say “n i g g e r” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, “forced busing,” “states’ rights,” and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. “We want to cut this” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “n i g g e r, n i g g e r.”

John: Holy shit. Obviously, he’s a little too comfortable with that word. You tend to only hear it come out that smoothly in either Tarantino movies or online forums in which white children play video games together. But that is actually a pretty concise history of a certain thread in politics for the past half-century, which brings us all the way up to the present day — literally, the present Wednesday, which is when the president of the United States, in announcing a rollback of an Obama-era rule under the fair housing act, sent a tweet in which he informed all of the people living their suburban lifestyle dream that they will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in their neighborhoods. And that is basically a campaign promise crafted by Lee Atwater and designed to win over this woman who’s probably dead now.

And what’s notable there is not that Trump’s being racist — which is not remotely surprising. It’s how neatly he fits into a systemic racism that’s been baked into this country from the beginning and which will still be here when he is gone. And if kids aren’t taught this, what chance do they have to understand what’s happening right now? And obviously, you’d need to calibrate this to each age group. No one is suggesting playing that Lee Atwater tape to third-graders. But it’s a bit like sex ed: you don’t skip straight ahead to ejaculation — which, by the way, is a pretty good sex tip for anyone with a penis — but we also don’t spend the first semester of sex ed teaching kids that we were all dropped out of the sky by fucking storks, because they’ll later have to un-learn that.

And I know that addressing mistakes like these won’t be easy. There’ll be bad-faith charges that doing so is political — although, I’d argue, no more political than the choices we’ve made to teach history the way we do now. And no doubt some parents will instinctively resist this. Back in 2010, when Texas was reviewing its state standards, one parent made it very clear that the main history he wanted his kids taught was that of “American exceptionalism.”

[Jason Moore, Texas Freedom Network, 2010] The one thing I want my kids to know when — when they get out of school about America is that the worst day in America beats the best day in any other country. That feels — [applause] that feels pretty easy. It seems like there becomes this great focus on the negative history of America instead of saying — oh, take, for instance, slavery — instead of, you know, looking at it in a positive light that Americans overcame something as evil as slavery and that we’re still a great nation today should be a testament to the kind of American spirit that exists in this country.

John: Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack there. First, your worst day in America really depends on who you are, and, importantly, when you are. There’s a reason, for instance, Marty McFly was white. Because black people don’t generally hang around with John C. Calhoun lookalikes who are obsessed with going back to the 1950s. And second, “Americans” did not overcome slavery. “Certain” Americans overcame certain “other” Americans, and slavery was “ended,” but whether it was “overcome” is very much another matter. And, look, while I understand any parent wanting his kids to be taught something inspiring, what he’s essentially asking for there is for his kids to be misinformed. And that’s not going to serve them well when they grow up. It’s not going to serve any of us well. Because ignoring the history you don’t like is not a victimless act. And a history of America that ignores white supremacy is a white supremacist’s history of America, which matters, because, while it might seem obvious, history isn’t over yet — it’s still being written. And you know who understood that? John Lewis. He is someone who’s very much part of american history, and he knew the importance of drawing a line from the past through the present. That may be why one of the last things he did before he died was visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington. He even wrote an op-ed to be published posthumously, which speaks directly to what we’ve been talking about. Just listen to this extract, read by Morgan Freeman:

[Morgan Freeman] You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. 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.

John: Exactly. History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world. But history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there’s nothing to improve. So we have to teach it better and continue to learn it, because it’s important for all of us to listen to the voices of history, whether they are a call to action, truly horrific, or a sad mummy orgasm.


John: Still excellent.

That’s our show. Thank you so much for watching. We’re off next week, back August 16th. Good night.

Hi, Steve Guttenberg again. Just want to give you a few things you might want to google to fill in those gaps you have about U.S. history. Claudette Coleman, she’s amazing. There’s a whole history there. James Baldwin. There’s a great documentary. The red summer of 1919. David Walker’s appeal. The Brownsville affair. The Atlanta washerwomen strike. Just google them all. That will be 150 bucks. I was in Three Men and a Little Lady. Thank you.


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