U.S. History: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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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. Connect with Last Week Tonight online... Subscribe to the Last Week Tonight YouTube channel for more almost news as it almost happens: www.youtube.com/lastweektonight Find Last Week Tonight on Facebook like your mom would: www.facebook.com/lastweektonight Follow us on Twitter for news about jokes and jokes about news: www.twitter.com/lastweektonight Visit our official site for all that other stuff at once: www.hbo.com/lastweektonight

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Video Transcript:

Moving on our main story tonight concerns history a subject so fascinating we're sometimes willing to do crazy experiments like this scientists were able to mimic nessie moon's voice by recreating his mouth and vocal cords with a 3d printer it allowed them to produce a single sound Excellent finally an answer to the question that scholars have asked for ages what would an ancient egyptian sound like if he orgasms 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 presence 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 us 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 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 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 airs many white americans went holy i had no idea this happened while many black americans went holy white people are gonna freak the 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 there must finally be freed two years after the emancipation proclamation by the way a recent poll showed that 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 mean something and that's just one of Many gaps in knowledge that some are now realizing that they have just watched joy behar try to explain why statues of george washington should be left alone and in doing so actually learning something the 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 going to Take somebody down take down thomas jefferson who didn't who didn't free his slaves no sonny disagrees he didn't free his slaves he actually spent the last year of his life like relentlessly pursuing slaves that tried to um run away he was a horrible slave owner yeah he was as usual sonny hostin is very right and megan 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 that we've seen again and again this year from the number one movie on netflix during the protest 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's 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 eulogy for john lewis this week in which obama advocated for abolishing the filibuster if necessary to expand voting rights tucker carlson had this to say 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'd probably walk out desecrating a funeral with campaign slogans what kind of person would do that wait what kind of person would honor a friend's legacy by continuing to advocate for voting rights you know what i can think of one john 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 a good idea to talk about how the history of race in america is currently taught in schools what some of 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 is wrong with that argument but this clip explains it significantly quicker The root cause of the civil war is clear what caused the civil war was slavery the main cause and why the south decides to succeed was for slavery so why do our history textbooks get it so wrong y'all don't want to deal with the up that y'all ancestors did yeah i mean that pretty much sums it up and 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 are now filled with stolen jewels like the cohen or 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 in so much as it was present and britain took it and for all The current handwringing 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 same 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 it'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 colon surviving hollywood and scientology but that impulse to downplay the horrors of slavery has marked how school children 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 school teacher revisit her fourth grade textbook no alabama 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 are disobedient because i just didn't want to be a slave 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 no 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 and now in their 50s doing things like running businesses or i don't know 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 school book 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 think we should describe slave labor as tours yeah you're right we probably 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 seeing local news stories like these 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 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 in this game it's 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 where they going to hang them they're going to kill them what the 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 have grown up learning the same skewed version of history that they are now passing on and when you take all of 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 that happened where he lived 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 was in tulsa and i i raised my hand i said no i'm from tulsa Not accurate and he was talking about this massacre riots man what are you talking about i said i went to school on greenwood i've never heard of this ever that's terrible and his school really let him down there think of the emotional whiplash that man must have gone through he found out something amazing at 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 would still be absolutely flawed 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 is this the first time Someone's mentioning this to me look it is pretty clear that we need to upgrade the way that 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 that 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 ingram take one school board's discussion of an anti-racist curriculum and spin it out into a dystopian vision designed to terrify her viewers now every subject every Extracurricular activity will be perverted to turn your kids into mini elon omars they're going to 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 now laura ingram might not seem like Someone capable of following anything apart from black teenagers simply trying to shop at cvs but i think she actually has picked up on a theme there because seeing as she brought up the constitution let's talk about it because that document is a lot of things genuinely revolutionary and the foundation of an improbably long-lived democracy but it's 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 cancelled 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 the 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'll either never get the full story or when they do they don't have the framework to understand how the pieces fit together here is one professor explaining how hard it can be for his students Learning the whole truth about thomas jefferson what that child is then going to 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 an r kelly of his time so while it may be uncomfortable he says you have to be honest i i swear ohioans suffer from Underground railroad itis right you ask him yeah who would have been who'd have been for the underground railroad right in class every every white hand goes i'm like look if all of y'all would have been down for the underground railroad wouldn't have been underground right there would have been no need for it okay first of all it says a lot about jefferson that if you went back in time Explain to him who r kelly was and told him he was being compared to him the child's pornography charges would not be the number one reason that he'd be insulted by the comparison but that professor makes a really good point there the less you know about history the easier that 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 and that actually brings us to the second common mistake that we make viewing american history's progress as if it was constantly and inevitably upward too often u.s history was 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 moment 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 70s when they fought for the voting rights act in the 1960s they were fighting to get back something that they'd already had the effects of reconstruction were almost immediate With an estimated 2 000 black men serving in elected office during that era including a number in congress and just look at these guys a plus achievement a plus plus facial hair there and sure you might think you can grow your mustache into your beard try it you 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 that 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 that you are 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 talk very very misleadingly 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 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 ingrams 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 it didn't cost the nation one Penny to integrate lunch counts well it didn't cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote [Music] but 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 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 actually brings us to the final point here 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 are 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 la 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 former confederates through the massive transfers of land by the homestead act mostly to white individuals through the growth of the suburbs in the 20th Century where redlining kept black people from moving into white neighborhoods throughout the country in fact just listen to this woman in levertown pennsylvania explained her objections to a black family moving to town in 1957 with some real honesty we like the advantages that levittown seemed to offer in comparison to other cities and we Understood that it was going to be all white we are very happy to buy a home here do you think a negro family moving here will affect the community as a whole 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 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 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 that 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 you start out in 1954 by saying By 1968 you can't say that hurts your back fire so you say stuff like force busting states rights and all that stuff and you're getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you're talking about are totally economic things and the byproduct problem is blacks get hurt worse than white we want to cut this and we want As much more abstract than even the busing thing [Music] and a hell of a lot more abstract than never never holy now 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 by now and what's notable there is not that trump's being racist which is not remotely surprising it's how neatly he fits in to 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 take two 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 were all dropped out of the sky by stalks because they'll later have to unlearn that and i know that addressing mistakes like these Will not be easy there'll be bad faith charges that doing so is political although i would argue no more political than the choices we've made to teach history the way that 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 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 it seems like there becomes this great focus on the negative history of america instead of saying uh oh take for instance slavery instead of you know looking at it in a positive life 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 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 is a reason for instance marty mcfly was white because black people generally don't 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 their 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 that you don't like is not a victimless act and a history of america that ignores white supremacy is a white supremacist 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's 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 might be why one of the last things that 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 tonight just listen to this extract read by 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 exactly history when taught well shows us how to improve the world but history when taught poorly falsely claims there is 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 still excellent that's our show thank you so much for watching we're off next week back august 16th good night

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