John Oliver Examines Increasing Segregation in American School Systems

Last night’s Last Week Tonight main segment starts strong, with a very solidly dated burn aimed at the movie Crash (hard to go wrong there): “Racism: you know, the problem that Crash failed to solve.”

The segment then zooms in on segregation in American schools, the subsequently shared statistics of which are disquieting, as they’ve more than doubled since the 70s. (Seems like the overarching theme of 2016: “Oh, you thought this dreadful aspect of society has even marginally improved in the past few decades? Gotcha!”)

In 1988, there were 2,672 schools listed where 1 percent or less of the student population is white, and in 2011 that number had risen to 6,272; Oliver jabs New Yorkers who think their lifestyle in a diverse city may set them above these issues, because it just so turns out that, say, the South has far less of an issue with segregated schools than New York State, which actually has the highest rate of anywhere in the U.S., “in large part due to New York City.”

“Alright New Yorkers, twist ending, you were racist the whole time. Put back those persimmons you bought yourself as a treat from Fairway, you don’t deserve them anymore,” exclaims Oliver.

He then explains that this isn’t only a concern of diversity, but that a huge problem stems from the fact that schools serving black and Latinx students are “more likely to attend schools with inexperienced teachers, which are then less likely to offer a college prep curriculum.” One of the main detriments of unofficially segregated school systems is that “funding tends to follow white people around.”

It’s not so much that New York “resegregated” in the past decades, Oliver suggests, but rather that it “never really bothered integrating in the first place.” He explains how the 1964 Civil Rights Act managed to work around desegregating northern schools that weren’t segregated in an official capacity. “It targeted the kind of segregation by law which existed in the South, so you couldn’t have a school that was officially designated ‘white only,’ but it exempted the so-called racial imbalance of northern schools. So if a New York school was all white because it was drawing from an all white area — even if that area had been kept that way due to a host of explicitly racist housing policies — that was somehow fine.”

Towards the end of the segment, he notes some cities in which desegregation efforts are currently working (albeit not perfectly) at diversifying school systems, and outlines models that, if adopted on a larger scale, could have a major impact.

Watch the segment: