Culture Trips

John Oliver on reparations: ‘A wound we are actively choosing not to heal’ | John Oliver

John Oliver revisited a history of housing discrimination in the US and how the wealth of black people has been affected by harmful policies.

The Last Week Tonight host started by referring to the “many horrifying chapters” of history that have led to this inequality. Currently, 54% of black householders own their properties compared with almost 74% of whites.

“Questions about where your house is and how much it is worth impact so many things about your quality of life,” he said before explaining that better homes lead to better schools, teachers and resources which in turn lead to better neighbourhoods.

He spoke of racial covenants which are bylaws that have restricted the selling of houses to people who are not white, some of which still exist in certain suburbs, such as in Texas.

Oliver explained that the federal government turbo-charged segregation with a system of loans to make it easier for people to buy and retain houses during the Great Depression. They would ensure a loan for people to buy a house. “The federal government essentially invented the modern home mortgage and it worked incredibly well,” he said.

It led to a cycle of generational wealth for white people that continues to this day. The effect on families of colour was “tragic” as “built directly into that plan was the intentional exclusion of black people”.

Neighbourhoods were “redlined” if black people were living there, making them ineligible for many mortgages. “These policies alone had a devastating effect on black communities significantly expanding and locking in segregation,” he said.

Oliver continued: “White people basically wrote black people can’t live here on pieces of paper and the federal government said if you don’t have one of those pieces of paper you can’t get a loan.”

He played footage of an elderly black woman telling a horrible story of being discriminated against years ago. He said that asking an older black person to tell a story from their childhood means “you’re suddenly in the middle of an August Wilson play”.

Out of the $40bn in loans given to people by the Federal Housing Administration, 98% went to white Americans.

He also spoke about the practice of “block-busting” where white people would try to turn off white buyers by pretending the neighbourhood had black residents. “The idea that was simply by doing this they could panic white homeowners into selling their house for a loss,” he said.

Since then, things are still flawed. “At every stage of the process black homebuyers face discrimination,” he said before telling a story of a black woman who received low appraisals for her house so used a white man to pose as her brother and was then given a number that was more than double the previous appraisals.

“The only time the addition of a white man should increase value to anything is if that thing is a movie and that white man is Stanley Tucci,” he joked.

The solution to Oliver is obvious: reparations. Yet only one in 10 white Americans support that concept. There is “quantifiable harm done to people in our lifetimes to people who are still alive” so for him, and many others, it’s a no-brainer.

“We know what the government did and we know the effect it had and there are potential models for us to learn from,” he said, using examples of money given to those impacted by the Holocaust and the Japanese-American internment.

But “simply handing out cash without changing the underlying conditions that created the problem in the first place would be a big mistake” making it “a both and situation”.

He continued: “The only strange thing about paying reparations to black people is that we haven’t done it already”. He called it “a wound that we are actively choosing not to heal”.

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