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Last Week Tonight With John Oliver returned Sunday night with its season nine premiere, where the host dissected the debate over teaching critical race theory in schools.
“A lot of people are getting very mad about critical race theory right now, and instinctively, you probably know it’s a manufactured panic, but the fact is the fear around it is having real effects,” Oliver said on his HBO show. He pointed to Glenn Youngkin winning the Virginia governor’s race last year after making campaign promises to ban the teaching of CRT in schools, along with the facts that several states have passed laws outlawing the teaching of CRT in schools and Republicans are likely to make CRT a major focus of the upcoming midterm elections.
“When it comes to CRT, think of it like Rihanna’s pregnancy: Even if you think it has nothing to do with you, believe me, you’re going to be hearing a lot about it this year,” Oliver said.
He went on to explain what CRT is, saying it is “the name given to a body of legal scholarship that began in the 1970s that attempted to understand why racism and inequality existed after the civil rights movement.”
He quoted an Education Week article that described it as follows: “The core idea is that … racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice … but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” He went on to criticize Tucker Carlson and other CRT opponents for claiming that it teaches that some races are superior to others or that it teaches kids to hate America.
Oliver showed a clip of CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw explaining that CRT “just says, ‘Let’s pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened in this country is continuing to create differential outcomes so we can become that country that we say we are.’ Critical race theory is not anti-patriotic. In fact, it is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment[s]. We believe it in the promises of equality, and we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.”
Oliver noted how big a topic CRT has become on Fox News, citing Critical Mention data that indicated “critical race theory” was mentioned on the air 4,707 times in 2021.
He then went back to his original point of addressing the teaching of “clumsy, shitty lessons” in CRT in schools, including examples of how it’s gone wrong, from a “privilege BINGO card” to an instructor teaching about prejudice by dividing a class up by eye color, where the brown-eyed students were the designated lowest tier and being treated terribly.
“And if you do that in a diverse classroom and think for even a second about who is more likely to have brown eyes, you can probably immediately see how badly that lesson can go,” Oliver said, noting that had happened in a school in the Chicago area that one of his writers, who is Black, had attended. He asked her what she thought of that lesson: “It was pretty fucked up,” she said.
Oliver noted that many educators are trying to find appropriate ways to talk about race and racism in school. “But the panic over CRT threatens to shut those conversations down,” he said. “And that is not all it is likely to do because some pushing this panic the hardest are actually using it to advance a much bigger agenda that they have wanted for a very long time, and that is “school choice” — basically, letting parents take tax dollars afforded to the public schooling of their kid and use it at any school they like.”
He cited Florida as one state that allows public money to go to voucher, or private, schools where the curriculum and books “downplay the horrors of slavery,” according to an Orlando Sentinel story he quoted. He showed a textbook that said, “The slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior.”
Calling that offensive and “profoundly stupid,” Oliver said: “Any kid reading that absolute trombone slide of a sentence would instantly drop two full grades. It sounds less like something you’d find in a textbook and more like something you might find crocheted on a throw pillow In Paula Deen’s living room.”
As of June 2021, Oliver noted, 37 states have taken steps, including introducing bills, to restrict the teaching of critical race theory in schools or limit how teachers can talk about race in classrooms.
He then showed an interview with a woman in Loudoun County, Virginia, who claimed that her community is not racist; following that, Oliver showed a report saying that students in the county’s public schools used the N-word to a “shocking” degree.
“I think as a society we’ve now agreed white people should not use the N-word a ‘shocking’ number of times — unless, that is, they have a lucrative podcast deal with Spotify,” Oliver said, referencing Joe Rogan.
He summed up his segment: “The debate around critical race theory is both very loud and very, very dumb, but unfortunately it is important to engage with it because if we don’t, the end point that we are heading toward is that honest discussions of race will be shut out of public schools even as some parents fuck off to voucher academies where their kids can learn a version of history that is basically antebellum fan fiction.”
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