John Oliver undertook the difficult task of condensing centuries of American racism into a 28-minute segment on Last Week Tonight this week. “George Floyd’s murder has forced a hard national conversation about this nation’s present, which is impossible to do effectively without re-examining its past,” he said at the top of the segment. Fortunately, Americans are taught an accurate and nuanced accounting of our country’s history, like that slaves had “a great frolic” after their masters threw them a picnic or that some slaves were “good workers” while others were “lazy and disobedient.” Wait, what?!
Since the U.S. has no national standards for social studies, the version of history that students are taught is largely left up to individual state mandates. And according to a CBS article cited by Oliver, “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.” Thankfully, we have a British late-night host to make up for the embarrassing gaps in most Americans’ knowledge of our own country’s past.
To do that, Oliver highlights three common mistakes in teaching American history. First is our refusal to fully acknowledge the history of white supremacy in America. Second is the persistent and inaccurate framing of American progress “as if it was constantly and inevitably upward,” which allows most people to think they would have supported the Underground Railroad while simultaneously disapproving of modern civil disobedience. Finally, Oliver points out our inability to connect the dots from the past to our present because it supposedly politicizes history. The Last Week Tonight host fully acknowledges that history must be taught in an age-appropriate manner, meaning third-graders probably shouldn’t hear Lee Atwater’s 1981 speech on the Southern Strategy. But that doesn’t mean glossing over the ugly bits, either. As Oliver says, “Ignoring the history you don’t like isn’t a victimless act.”