On this week’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made an arresting case for reparations. The show’s main segment focused primarily on housing discrimination in the US and the ways in which federal policies such as redlining and racial covenants, and their ongoing ramifications for Black Americans, have historically contributed to an almost unbridgeable wealth gap in which Black families own about $13 for every $100 in wealth owned by a non-Hispanic white family. In discussing a recent decision from officials in Los Angeles County to return a beachfront property to a Black family, the Bruces, nearly a century after it was unjustly taken from them under the guise of eminent domain, Oliver claims that it is “something approaching justice. Land was taken away, land is given back.”
Oliver extends the argument to all forms of housing discrimination, not just what happened to the Bruces. Throughout the segment, he runs through the countless ways in which city, state, and most importantly, the federal government systematically prevented Black Americans from building wealth for centuries. From the mandatory racial covenants of the Fair Housing Act to the redlining of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and from steering to block-busting, Oliver makes the case that the effects of these practices are still prevalent today, limiting the wealth, resources, and lifestyles that Black communities have access to:
Because it was the federal government that institutionalized these racist policies on such a vast scale, Oliver argued, it is the federal government that must “grapple with the consequences.” Featuring footage of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Hones outlining the three core tenets of any meaningful reparations strategy—a recommitment to a strong enforcement of civil rights laws, a large investment of resources into Black communities, and cash payments—the segment treats reparations not as a question of whether or not they should happen but how.
“The only strange thing about paying reparations to Black people is that we haven’t done it yet,” Oliver says. “Just like it’s strange that it’s taken so long to give Bruce’s Beach back to the Bruces. In both cases, the right thing to do couldn’t be clearer,” he said. “When you deprive somebody of something, you make it right by paying what you owe.”