“Of course racism exists in New York”: John Oliver confronts school segregation in liberal US cities

“Have you never seen West Side Story?”
“Have you never seen West Side Story?”
Image: HBO/YouTube screenshot
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“The hard truth is,” says John Oliver, “you don’t have to be intentionally racist to do things that have racist effects.”

It’s a comment that could apply generally—but the comedian, speaking on Sunday’s (Oct. 30) episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, is specifically addressing modern-day segregation within school districts, a problem that he points out should have been addressed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but is in fact still rampant today.

Thanks to discriminatory housing policies and economics, there are still thousands of schools all over the country that are racially divided, disadvantaging students and parents alike. (What’s more, that segregation appears to be on the rise.)

While one might think the issue of school segregation is limited to particular regions of the US, Oliver says, the historically racially troubled South is actually the least segregated part of the country—with the worst segregation in New York City and other urban areas.

Big city public school districts tend to group minority students in low-income areas together in schools that are staffed by inexperienced teachers and offer meager resources, while their white counterparts get access to more. Why? In short, Oliver explains, because ”funding tends to follow white people around, the way white people follow the band Phish around.”

The comedian points to several local governments, like that of Boston, that have made valiant efforts at racial integration such as setting up voluntary programs to send inner-city kids to suburban schools. But most urban schools remain cripplingly divided, breeding racial discrimination in children as they grow up into adults.

“Oh shit, liberal white New Yorkers,” Oliver scoffs. “Twist ending: you were racist the whole time. Put back those persimmons you bought yourselves as a treat from Fairway. You don’t deserve them anymore.”