Speed Reads


John Oliver explains to white people why, in 2016, school segregation 'is still a big problem'

Tonight, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, "we're going to discuss school segregation, which it turns out is still a big problem." He started with a little dig at his audience: "Now at this point, if you are in a city like New York, you're probably thinking, 'Oh, splendid, I know where this is going: a story vilifying the backwards and racist American South. Let me just grab a handful of kale chips that I can munch on while feeling superior.' Well hold on, there is probably something you should know." The South is the most integrated part of the U.S., he noted, kind of smugly, and New York City is the least.

Segregated schools "are very rarely equal in any way," Oliver noted, and black and Latino students bear a serious cost. "So how is it possible that our nation's schools are, by some measures, more segregated now than they have been in over four decades?" he asked. It turns out that places like New York City "never really bothered integrating in the first place," and the 1964 Civil Rights Act didn't make them — it was crafted by Northern lawmakers to undo the segregation "by law" in the South, but exempted the "racial imbalance" of Northern schools, Oliver explained, noting that Malcolm X was pointing this out at the time.

Part of this is about the money that flows to schools when white students are put in them, Oliver said. "Funding tends to follow white people around the way white people follow the band Phish around." But there are other tangible benefits to black and Latino students in segregated schools, too — and no measurable downside to white students.

"I get the impulse to seize every tiny advantage for your kid — I get that — but segregated schools cause devastating harm to actual children, and not just to their education but to their very sense of self worth," Oliver said. So what's in it for white people? Oliver suggests your white child's lack of exposure to black and Latino kids will embarrass you — and that well-intentioned white kid in blackface should give parents pause. But actually, "there are massive and multiple benefits for all of us if they interacted a lot more from an early age," he said. You can watch his argument below. Peter Weber