Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 8 Episode 18
Aired on July 25, 2021
Main segment: Housing discrimination in the United States
Other segments: 2021 Summer Olympics, COVID-19 Delta variant
Guest: H. Jon Benjamin (voice-over)
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John: Hi there, welcome to the show, we’re back, still from this blank void. On that point, I have a bit of an update. Looks like, all being well, we are set to be back in our studio in September, meaning that the next five shows are actually going to be the last that we do there in the void.
Holy shit, thank god.
John: excuse me?
You heard me.
I’m sorry, you can talk?
Of course I can talk, John. I can also cry, which, you know, I’m not afraid to cry. I can sing pretty well, actually.
Also, I can laugh. Void loves to laugh.
John: I’m sorry, you can laugh? Really? I’ve been stuck here for nearly a year and a half telling jokes and I haven’t heard you laugh once. Not one time.
Well, that’s because you haven’t really given me a reason to, and I didn’t consider any of those jokes.
John: That is a mean thing to say.
I’m going to get this off my chest. I don’t mean to be rude. But you know what?
It’s going to be really good to be just a void again without you in it, which is a pretty shocking declaration when you say that a void would rather be just a void with nothing in it because of you.
John: Look, can I just start my show now please?
Go ahead, I mean, if you want. Or don’t. It really doesn’t matter to me either way. Has it been a busy week, john?
John: Yes, it has. It has, actually.
[Groans] So aggravating.
John: All right.
Just pretend I’m not here.
John: I will.
I will remain silent. Because I won’t be laughing.
John: That is understood. It has been a busy week. Very busy. I’m ready, the Olympics opening ceremony finally took place in Tokyo. A year late and still under significant cloud.
This morning, officials in Tokyo revealing that Covid cases have increased 155% in the past seven days.
Tonight, Covid-19 defeating some Olympic athletes before they’ve even had a chance to compete. According to the IOC, more than 60 people in the Olympic bubble have tested positive for the virus.
John: And the truth is, it’s gotten even worse, because as of Saturday the current total of Olympics-related Covid cases is up to 127. Which really shouldn’t be surprising. The event whose central premise is basically, “what if a bunch of hot people traveled from all over the world to sweat, breathe, and fuck on each other” turns out to be going exactly as you’d expect it to during a pandemic. And I will say, Tokyo is by no means alone in making a very bold move in the face of the spread of the Delta variant. In the U.K., Monday marked so-called Freedom Day, with the lifting of almost all virus-related restrictions, even though Covid cases have recently spiked to the highest levels there since January. Boris Johnson has faced significant criticism about this decision and has chosen to justify it like this:
Boris Johnson: If we don’t do it now, we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?
John: Oh, I can answer that for you: later. Just, a later time. It’s so brazenly disingenuous to frame this as a choice between lifting Covid restrictions now or never doing it. It’s the equivalent of someone saying, “if I don’t take a shit now in the middle of this apple store, when will I ever take a shit?” I don’t know exactly, but I feel like there are a lot of other options available that you’re choosing not to consider. And if you’re wondering, “why does Boris Johnson look like he’s hired an impersonator of himself to deliver this message via cameo?” Well, it’s because he was self-isolating after being exposed to someone who caught Covid. Specifically, his health minister. Which is not an ideal way to reassure people that “now is the right time to open up.” And even some of the British people celebrating “freedom day” seemed to understand they were dancing on a knife’s edge.
I want to dance, I want to hear live music.
Yes! It feels like freedom day, it really, really does.
It’s nice to be out, but like at the end of the day, it’s all going to result in some sort of impending doom.
John: You know what? I have to agree with CVS-brand Noel Gallagher there. Because that sentiment fundamentally speaks to the British character. Screw “Keep Calm and Carry On.” “It’s all going to result in some sort of impending doom” should be Britain’s new motivational poster, because that is exactly how I feel about everything all the time. Even here in the United States, there is cause for real concern amid all the optimism. The Delta variant now accounts for 83% of known U.S. cases and is causing a rise in hospital admissions, particularly among the unvaccinated. And yet despite the fact that vaccines are widely available here, some — even those hospitalized — are still hesitant.
Here I am, recovering, getting out of here finally tomorrow. Am I going to get a vaccine? No. Don’t shove it down my throat. That’s what’s local, state, federal administration is trying to do, is shove it down your throat.
What are they shoving, the science?
No, they’re shoving the fact that that’s their agenda. The agenda is to get you vaccinated.
John: Uh… Yeah. Yeah, actually, nailed it in one. Public health officials’ agenda is to get you vaccinated. And you know what Covid’s agenda is? To fucking kill you. To burrow into your body through your hot little mouth, fuck around with your lungs, flip your nostrils off, make soup taste more like nothing than it already does, and then kill you. So frankly, if the choice is between agenda: death or agenda: shot that comes with free Krispy Kreme donut, I think you should take the jizz-covered dough hoop with a side of antibodies. And while that’s clearly infuriating, individuals like that man are pretty much unreachable at this point, which is why it’s so important to convince everyone who might be persuadable to get vaccinated. Because if this week’s taught us anything, it’s that Covid is nowhere near being eradicated and the best defense against it is being fucking vaccinated. Yes, there are breakthrough cases, but the vaccine is doing its job. More than 97% of those hospitalized for Covid in the U.S. are unvaccinated. So right here we need to be encouraging as many as possible to get their shots, and, crucially, to then share our surplus supply with countries around the world that desperately need them. Because — if I may quote the words of Geoffrey Rush after a bad bleach job — “if we don’t do it now, when will we ever do it?” And now this.
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Announcer: and now, people on tv mean “fucking,” Olympics edition.
The Olympic village was full of cardboard beds, and the idea behind it, supposedly, was to make sure that these athletes weren’t going down there doing the do. ♪ ♪
If you know anything about the Olympic village, you know it’s a hotbed for… [Whistle] you know what I mean?
Athletes will be pursuing their dreams, and perhaps each other, if you know what I mean.
Some even speculating they were meant to prevent certain extracurricular activities, you would say.
Does it have a box spring?
No, exactly, they’re going to be walking around with sore backs?
I would imagine.
Too busy looking at the gymnast jumping up and down without a shirt on.
I see where you’re going.
You said your husband is out of town this week.
[Laughs] this is how rumors get started.
John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns land. Specifically, the history of race and land ownership in America. A history that has many horrifying chapters — pretty much from chapter one, when America was “discovered” from under other people’s feet. So many, in fact, that some have nearly been forgotten, like this piece of local history that recently made the news.
In Manhattan beach, California, a house on the sand can cost up to $20 million, and Anthony Bruce’s family used to own two oceanfront lots.
I should be a millionaire standing here t — talking to you today.
More than 100 years ago, his great-great-grandparents, Willa and Charles Bruce, bought the land for about $1,200. They built a resort called “Bruce’s Lodge.”
The Ku Klux Klan was involved in harassing them.
They burned a cross right out here.
And when that didn’t drive them away, the city government decided to take the property under the guise of eminent domain.
John: Wow. So when the cross burning didn’t drive the Bruces out of town, the city called in a lawyer to finish the job. And that tells you a lot about how racism in America works. Sure, the vigilante racists are spooky. But you’ve really gotta worry when the motherfuckers with advanced degrees show up. What Manhattan beach did to the Bruce family was clearly unforgivable. And to its credit, the city seems to be trying to reckon with how to deal with what happened. Although it’s also placing some pretty hard limits on that reckoning.
The council did authorize spending $350,000 on art to commemorate the family, and this week, voted to acknowledge and condemn what happened — but chose not to offer an official apology.
It’s awful. It’s wrong. We’re not that community now. I wouldn’t live here if we were a racist community, and my friends and neighbors would not live here as well.
John: Okay, couple of things. First: Manhattan beach’s population is only 0.5% black, so even if you are not that community now, you don’t look un-like it. And second: if you took something worth $20 million, $350,000 doesn’t cover it. Especially when none of that money went toward the family you stole it from. There’s pretty obviously only two ways of making this right: give the Bruces $20 million or give them their land back. And incredibly, the latter might actually happen. Because L.A. County, which owns the land, recently released a plan for returning it to the Bruces. Which is, to put it mildly, about time! It’s literally been called Bruce’s Beach since 2006. Is the apostrophe s a fucking joke to you people? It indicates possession. So the story of Bruce’s Beach might actually end with something approaching justice. Land was taken away. Land is given back. And I want you to keep the elegance of that solution in mind as we talk about a far more insidious and widespread form of wealth appropriation, and that is housing discrimination. There is a long history of it in America — and we will get to that in a minute — but before we do, let’s just start with its effects. Currently, only 45% of black householders own their homes, compared with nearly 74% of whites. And since home ownership is a key component of wealth, it’s no surprise that the wealth gap between white and black families is so huge, many literally don’t comprehend it. One recent survey found most people think that, for every $100 in wealth held by a white family, a black family has $90, when the truth is, it’s actually closer to $13, with the median white family having a net worth of around $188,000 and the median black family having just over $24,000. But the effects of housing discrimination go well beyond wealth, because questions about where your house is and how much it’s worth impact so many things about your quality of life. For instance, because a key way Americans pay for public schools is through property taxes, better homes lead to better schools, better teachers, and more resources, which in turns leads back to better neighborhoods in general, including cleaner streets, cleaner air, and, crucially, only the most exclusive and fuckable trees. Is that tree a bakery? Because it’s. Got. Cakes. That tree — don’t just let the audio of this play in the background while you’re working, click back on the YouTube tab and look at me — that tree can get it. So if it’s led to a wealth gap this massive and consequences this wide-ranging, tonight, let’s take a look at housing discrimination, the damage it’s done, and more importantly, what we can do about it. Some of you may already know what the last part is going to be and might even be shouting it at your screens, but please, don’t spoil it for everyone else — let’s let it be a surprise. And let’s start in the early 20th century, because that’s when the real estate industry really began to grow, and as it did, white people moved quickly to codify the distance between them and black people. One major way this happened was through “racial covenants” — essentially bylaws written into deeds or neighborhood regulations forbidding the sale of a house to a non-white person. And incredibly, these covenants were so widespread that many are still technically on the books. A Texas news station recently unearthed one in a local suburb and showed it to unsuspecting residents there.
Section two, page three reads, “none of the lots shall be conveyed, leased, or occupied by any person other than of the Caucasian race. It provides an exception for those employed as servants.
“…the person other than the Caucasian race.” Whew. Okay.
John: Well, quite! The tone of that “whew, okay” is usually reserved for a few things: finding out your grandma is still sending nudes, that Jeremy Piven launched a podcast called “How you Livin’, j Piven,” and that your neighborhood technically still has bylaws prohibiting black people from living there. And while racial covenants were done at the local level, what really turbocharged segregation was when the federal government got involved. In the 1930s, the new deal established the federal housing administration and the home owners loan corporation or “HOLC” — which is, incidentally, also French for “hulk.” Eh, HOLC — how you say, er… Le smuush. The idea of these two agencies was to make it easier for people to buy and retain houses during the great depression, and they were promoted at the time through newsreels like this:
This couple is going through a model house now — suppose we follow them. The husband apparently isn’t very keen about it all, but you know how wives are. This cheerful room with its many handy cabinets impresses even this skeptic, and his wife is entranced by the modern flat top stove. Too bad they can’t afford it — ah, but maybe they can. Well, according to this sign, they can buy this house with monthly payments that are less than they now spend for rent.
John: Wow. That is a very affordable house for two people that clearly do not get along. “You know how husbands are: they hate their wives and anything that would make her happy. Every moment with them is torture. And maybe a new house would help, as neither of them will leave this wretched marriage because it’s the 1930s. It’s up to the baby to save them!” The pitch was that the government would insure your loan so that banks would accept a significantly smaller down payment than was standard at the time, with much lower interest rates, and give you decades to pay it off. The federal government essentially invented the modern home mortgage, and it worked incredibly well. Millions bought homes who could never otherwise have afforded them, beginning a cycle of stable, generational wealth that continues to this day. It was a great idea. I cannot stress that enough. Which is why it is so tragic that built directly into that plan was the intentional exclusion of black people. For instance, HOLC developed maps that color-coded areas green, yellow, blue, or red based on their credit-worthiness. A neighborhood earned a red color — or be “redlined” — if any African American’s lived in it at all, at which point, the area was essentially ineligible for any mortgages. Meanwhile, when it came to new developments, the FHA’s underwriting manual essentially mandated that communities have racially restrictive covenants as a prerequisite to receive mortgage insurance. These policies alone had a devastating effect on black communities, significantly expanding and locking in segregation. And some developers ensured they would continue to qualify for loans by going to some ridiculous lengths.
Here in Detroit, there was a developer that wanted to build a development for whites, and they wanted to get FHA loans. And the federal government said, “you know what? There’s a black community kind of close by, you don’t get the good loans.” And so the developer, in an effort to try to fix that, built a 6-foot-tall wall, a foot deep, to separate the black community from the emerging white community. And then the federal government gave the loan.
John: That’s terrible. And what makes it somehow worse is that that wall was only six feet tall. That’s just not that tall. That’s like the height of a fridge. Or a mattress. Or Snoop Dogg. Snoop’s 6’4.” He could very easily see over it. Is that what you want? Snoop making direct eye contact with you over your stupid, racist wall? How is that helping anyone? And all of this is obviously horrifying: white people basically wrote “black people can’t live here” on pieces of paper and the federal government said “if you white people don’t have one of those pieces of paper, you can’t get a loan.” If everything had just stopped there, the damage would already have been immense. But it very much did not stop there. After World War II, the GI Bill gave returning service members access to home loans with as little as no down payment, which is great! But the vast majority of financial institutions still refused to approve loans for African Americans, meaning that black service members returned home only to be shut out of homeownership in the rapidly expanding suburbs, one of the most famous examples of which was Levittown, a development on long island of over 17,000 homes. And to ensure government support to build them, the developer had the contracts state that “the home could not be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” And when black people did try to buy homes there, they were told in no uncertain terms just how unwelcome they were, as this woman remembers.
We went to the office where the gentleman was showing the houses. So my husband said to him, my wife and I are interested in, you know, purchasing a home here in Levittown. He said, get your [bleep] out of here.
John: Wow. That is a sweet lady recounting an appalling story in just the most matter-of-fact way. But I guess for black people in America, you ask your grandma to tell you a wholesome story about something like the first school dance she went to or how she and grandpa bought a house, and it’s not long before you’re suddenly in the middle of an August Wilson play. And crucially, white people who were able to buy homes in Levittown could accumulate massive wealth. In 1948, homes there sold for around $8,000, or about $75,000 in today’s money, and they currently sell for $350,000 or more, meaning families who bought homes back in 1948 gained more than $200,000 in wealth. That’s a lot! So, quick side note: if you’re young, white, and looking for a real return on investment, forget about your AMC and Gamestop stonks. What you really want to do is get a time machine, travel back to the 1940s, and buy a house in a segregated suburb. It’s the safest investment you’ll ever make. And Levittown and Detroit were by no means alone. This happened again and again, so much so that the exclusion of black people from these federal programs was nearly absolute. For instance, a survey of 13 cities in Mississippi in 1947 found that — of the more than 3,200 loans given to returning veterans under the GI Bill — only two went to African Americans. And nationwide, in just the first quarter century of the federal housing administration, the government insured over $40 billion in loans. That’s the equivalent of nearly $400 billion today. But some estimates indicate that 98% of them went to white Americans. 98%! If you ate 98% of someone’s cannoli, you ate all their cannoli. Pointing out the fact they’ve still technically got 2% somehow makes it worse. And the implications of all of this can be hard for some to think about. Earlier this year, CBS’ Tony Dokoupil did a story about his grandparents’ hometown of Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and in doing so, broke some difficult news to the town’s unofficial historian.
Wait a minute. You’re telling me they were only going to mortgage white people?
For you to say that Lyndhurst is the way it is because it almost implies that Lyndhurst was racist.
No, this is my family too. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that we — I’m saying we had no idea.
You’re right. Most people would not have known that the federal government had this program in place.
John: Okay, first, I get that this is uncomfortable, but I will say, if a white person says “that almost implies blank was racist” and another one says “no, no, this is my family too,” that doesn’t mean the matter’s closed. If two white people are trying to figure out if something’s racist, nine times out of ten, it probably is. As for that man’s claim “most people would not have known this program was in place,” hold on. None of this was a secret at the time. The link between the racial makeup of your neighborhood and the value of your home was so well-established, some speculators took advantage of it to buy homes on the cheap through a practice called “blockbusting.” That’s where they’d go to a white neighborhood and make it seem like black people were moving in. They would hire a black woman to walk up and down the street with a stroller, or call homes and ask to speak to someone with a stereotypically black name. The idea was that simply by doing this, the speculators could panic white homeowners into selling their homes at a loss. This tactic was incredibly effective. But I will say, some white homeowners did stand firm — like this amazing woman in Baltimore:
Well, I happened to be sitting on the steps with a friend of mine, and the man that had gotten the house from the woman next door, he came up and he said to me, “would you like to sell?” And I said, “no, I couldn’t afford to sell, because I can’t afford to go anywhere else.” And he said, “you won’t sell?” I said, “no.” He says, “well” — pardon me, Angie, these are not my words. He said, “what are you going to do when these [bleep] move in here, and they get out on the porch in the summer and they drink beer?” I said, “hell, I’m going to join them.” [Laughter]
John: Look, I know this story is full of terrible people and unmitigated racism, so we should probably take a moment to celebrate a lady who just wanted to get drunk on her porch with her neighbors regardless of their color. I love so many things about that: I love rose’s don’t-give-a-fuck energy, but also Angie’s “rose is gonna rose” response. Because when rose said, “pardon me, Angie, these are not my words,” that was for us. Angie knew. She knows who rose is and she’s made peace with it. These women have talked. There’s a history in that relationship. Bless you, rose. And bless Angie too. Just because rose was an ally doesn’t mean she was always an easy person to be around. And when you put all of this together, it is no wonder that by the late ’60s, fair housing had become a core issue for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther king’s efforts to combat housing discrimination in Chicago were met with fierce resistance, and uprisings began to break out across the country — unrest that reached a fever pitch in the wake of king’s assassination. LBJ and congressional leaders tried to settle things down with the civil rights act of 1968, with sections 8 and 9 being the fair housing act, and section 10, titled “civil obedience” — an anti-riot act — which is a pretty effective way of saying “that’s our final offer, we’ve gone about as far as we’re going with this whole ‘civil rights’ thing.” The fair housing act made housing discrimination illegal and also required the government to “affirmatively further” fair housing — in other words, take an active role in integration. And to his credit, Nixon’s housing secretary, George Romney, mitt’s dad, actually tried to do that and developed a program to withhold federal grants from communities that refused to integrate. But Nixon then quickly stepped in, calling it off, and publicly repudiating the whole plan.
Concerning governor Romney’s plan, to what extent should the federal government use its leverage to promote racial integration in suburban housing?
It is not the policy of this government to use the power of the federal government or federal funds in any other way, in ways not required by the law, for forced integration of the suburbs. I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest.
John: Yeah, not great. And it is worth reminding yourself once in a while just how deeply weird Nixon was. He’s been rendered so silly by a lifetime of cartoonish impressions, it’s genuinely unsettling to watch him make unyielding eye contact while saying “I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest” like a cold robot powered by racism. All I’m saying is, it really says something that the most human version of Nixon is the one where he’s a cartoon head in a jar. And what Nixon made very clear there is that the federal government would not step in to integrate neighborhoods, meaning neighborhoods weren’t going to integrate. Prices in white neighborhoods were now too high, and the racial wealth gap was firmly entrenched. And even though overt discrimination was now illegal, there were, and still are, many, many ways for neighborhoods to keep themselves white. Sometimes it’s through zoning — like banning multi-family homes and sometimes it comes in the form of realtors steering buyers away from certain neighborhoods on a racial basis. They are not supposed to do that, but it still happens all the time. A few years ago, “Newsday” had testers of multiple races pose as homebuyers on long island, and the black testers experienced disparate treatment nearly half the time. In some cases, they were sent to vastly different neighborhoods. But even a realtor who “Newsday” said gave out similar listings to black and white buyers — thereby staying outside the legal definition of “steering” — accompanied them with some not-so-subtle tips that she only gave to the white tester.
And then there’s pockets of Port Jeff too, that, you know, down by the train there’s an area there. What I say is always, to women, follow the school bus, see the moms that are hanging out on the corners. There was one fella who, like, insisted on this house and the wife was pregnant, had a little one. And I said to him, I can’t say anything, but I encourage you — I want you to go there at 10:00 at night with your wife to buy diapers. Go to that 7-eleven. They didn’t buy there. [Laughs]
No, that’s great.
I have to say it without saying it, you know. You have the knowledge of the areas, you know.
I don’t want to use the word “steer,” but I try to — I use another word. I educate in the area, you know.
John: Oh, well, that’s all right then. As long as you don’t say the word “steer,” it’s okay. It’s like taboo. As long as you don’t say one of the five words on the card, you’re completely in the clear. At every step of the process, black homebuyers are faced with discrimination. A few years ago, reporters crunched through 31 million loan applications and found that African Americans continue to be routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at much higher rates, even controlling for income, loan amount, and neighborhood. And even if you own your home, the simple act of having it appraised can be tainted by discrimination. This woman had had her home appraised twice, but the values seemed low to her, so she did a little experiment.
I met with two of my girlfriends. Both of them are married to white men, and I was like, okay, I need to borrow one of your husbands.
When the third appraiser came, Duffy was gone. Her friend’s husband posed as her brother. The result? Duffy’s home was appraised for $259,000, more than double that of her previous two appraisals.
I screamed with joy. I just was — I was so elated. And then it just — it quickly dissipated. And then I just cried. Because this is an actual “there it is” in that I’m the thing that’s the devaluing my house.
John: Look, that’s just awful. We all know the only time the addition of a white man should increase value to anything is if that thing is a movie and that white man is Stanley Tucci. Otherwise, it’s just not okay. And when you take all this together — the redlining, the blockbusting, the steering, and not least, the federal government’s involvement — it all becomes clear that the myth of white Americans’ post-war prosperity, powered by ingenuity and self-reliance, leaves a lot out. And the problem is, there are many white people who are unwilling to acknowledge this — or, even if they do, are unsure what to do with the information. Remember tony Dikoupil’s story about Lyndhurst? The mayor there, and the historian, had very different reactions to what they were learning.
The one thing that I’m struggling with, and this is as — as somebody whose family came through here, is when I looked at the old maps, just over the river, the areas were redlined by the federal government, meaning they weren’t worthy of mortgages. And Lyndhurst wasn’t redlined. What do you do with that knowledge?
You move on. Come on, it’s all god’s people.
Now that we do know —
What do we do about it?
You know, that’s a good question. I don’t have the answer to that, tony. I wish I did.
John: Okay, we’ll get to the content of what they’re saying in a second, but first, I gotta know everything about that mayor and how he came into office. If I had to guess, a couple of candidates disappeared. You can’t have a run-off if only one candidate is on the ballot, can you? But as nice as it sounds to just move on, that’s not dealing with the underlying injury here. Because even if you had a magic wand and were able to stop every facet of housing discrimination going forward, you still wouldn’t be undoing the damage that has been done. Home prices have risen much more than wages in the last 50 years, so buying a home today doesn’t carry the same economic promise as it did when the FHA started. In fact, by one estimate, if we do “do nothing and move on,” it would take 200 years for the wealth gap to disappear on its own. And yet, so often, efforts to address the legacy of housing discrimination have been resolutely color-blind. Here is Joe Biden on the campaign trail just last year:
My plan for African Americans to close the wealth gap is to invest in African American home ownership. That includes my insisting that there will be a $15,000 first-time home buyer tax credit for everyone.
John: Well, hold on there, Joe. “For everyone”? That might sound great, but it also fundamentally dilutes what you’re actually trying to do here. Because we’ve immediately gone from targeted investment in black home ownership to a broad tax credit for everybody. And we sure seem to become a rainbow coalition as soon as the federal government starts handing out cash, don’t we? And our failure to effectively target solutions based on race has doomed potential fixes in the past. In the ’70s, we passed the community reinvestment act requiring banks to approve loans in low-income neighborhoods. But we didn’t specify who the loans had to go to, with one analysis in Philadelphia showing that banks and lenders favored white borrowers, even in majority-black neighborhoods, making this well-meaning act basically a gentrification machine. Although not a literal gentrification machine, of course, as we all know, those are obviously e-scooters. So that approach of “move on, we’re all god’s people” hasn’t fixed the problem. But what about that second guy, who said he doesn’t know what we should do about it, but wishes he had the answer? If that is true, if he honestly wants to know what a major component of the answer should probably be, I’ve got some good news for him, because it exists, it’s pretty straightforward, and it’s the same answer that many black viewers have been shouting at their screen for the last 20 minutes. Because it’s reparations. And the first thing to say about this is that it is by no means a new argument. People have been making the case for reparations for generations, and the history of housing discrimination specifically made up a large part of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning essay “the case for reparations” seven years ago. And yet, even though reparations are clearly necessary, practical, and the right thing to do, a poll recently found only one in ten white people favor them. And some dismiss the subject right out of hand.
Yeah, I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing a landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country. But no one currently alive was responsible for that.
John: Wow. Reparations aren’t a good idea because “we’ve elected an African American president”? Who exactly is the “we” in that sentence, mitch? Because as I remember it, electing that president was basically your least favorite thing America ever did, and you vowed to devote every waking moment to making sure it didn’t happen again. “We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war — which I didn’t have to take a side in — by passing civil rights legislation — which I didn’t have to take a position on — and by electing an African American president — who I’ve always been against. This country has come a long way, and, with god as my witness, it will not go any further.” But the thing is, we’re not actually talking about reparations for slavery here — we should, but that’s a different conversation. We’re talking about housing discrimination. Mitch McConnell was born in 1942. The fair housing act wasn’t passed until 1968. This is quantifiable harm done in our lifetimes to people who are still alive. As for what reparations could look like, there has been a bill introduced in the house for 30 years by the late John Conyers to form a commission to study this, and this year the house judiciary committee voted to advance it. So if we really want to know what reparations could look like, we can pass that bill and find out. But to be clear: we don’t really need to study the “whether,” we just need to study the “how.” Because we know what the government did, and we know the effect it had. And there are potential models for us to learn from — from Germany paying reparations to holocaust survivors to the U.S. paying Japanese Americans who were interned in world war ii. And if you’re looking for more recent examples, Evanston, Illinois, recently voted to use revenue from legal weed to provide grants to assist black people who lived there from 1919 to 1969 and their descendants. Now, does that program fix everything? No, of course not. Its first phase makes available up to $25,000 for each participant, who can only spend that money on buying or renovating a house or paying down their mortgage. And the initial budget for the program is only $400,000, so it might well be limited to 16 people. But it is at least a real attempt to both acknowledge and redress harm. And ultimately, this isn’t something cities, or even states, can do on their own. It took the power and resources of the federal government to enforce racism on this scale, and only the federal government can truly grapple with the consequences. And there are some — like Nikole Hannah-Jones — who have some pretty specific ideas on what that grappling could look like.
So, to me, reparations has to be three-pronged. Recommitment to strong enforcement of civil rights laws, because you can get this economic payment, but we know that black people still face discrimination in every aspect of American society. And I think there needs to be a really large investment of resources into the black community that have had that wealth extracted and have been denied the ability to live like other Americans. And I think anyone who is reparations that is not going for a cash payment is basically as racist. Because it’s like, it’s only when it comes to black folks that we are so concerned with how people are going to spend.
Don’t know if they know how to spend that money responsibly.
I say this jokingly but half jokingly. If I want to spend my reparations on all Gucci, that is my right.
John: Yeah, black people should get to decide how to spend the money the federal government gives them, in the same way white people got to decide how to spend all the billions of dollars in wealth it created for them. I promise you not all that money has been spent responsibly. Just think how much of it has gone towards Thomas Kinkade paintings. There is one, and only one, good reason to buy a Thomas Kinkade painting, and that’s to help convince the appraiser that your friend’s white husband really does live in this house. That is it. And I’m not saying money alone is what’s called for here. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, simply handing out cash without changing any of the underlying structural conditions that produced inequality in the first place would be a big mistake. This is a both/and situation. But ultimately, the only real strange thing about paying reparations to black people is that we haven’t done it yet. Just like it’s strange that it has taken so long to give Bruce’s Beach back to the Bruces. In both cases, the right thing to do couldn’t be clearer. When you deprive somebody of something, you make it right by paying what you owe. Now, figuring out exactly how to pay might get complicated, but realizing that you have to should be pretty simple. Because this is a wound that we are actively choosing not to heal, and it is hurting real people every day. And also try and think of the positives here. Because if we do choose to do the right thing, and after all these years, redress this wrong, we might finally live up to this country’s highest potential, and that is to become a nation of rose and Angies getting absolutely day-wasted on our porches.
That’s our show. Thank you so much for watching. See you next week, good night!