John Oliver Calls Out the Dirtiest Kind of Racism

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John Oliver began the latest Last Week Tonight by discussing the ghoulish trio of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. All three have seemingly had a disastrous past couple of weeks in their bids for reelection later this year.

DeSantis signed into law a bill ending Disney World’s sweetheart tax breaks to punish Disney for (belatedly) criticizing Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law — thing is, the punishment may both be illegal and saddle local Florida governments with $1 billion in debt. Abbott initiated additional inspections of all trucks crossing the border from Mexico in order to curb illegal activity (read: brown people sneaking in), which resulted in supply chain nightmares and exactly zero discoveries of illegal activity. And Villanueva ominously announced he would be investigating a Los Angeles Times reporter who obtained a leaked video of a deputy kneeling on the head of an inmate for three straight minutes.

“Depressingly, it seems that [Villanueva is] going to get reelected this year,” Oliver admitted. “Bullying a reporter might actually help him, just like DeSantis’ and Abbott’s harmful stunts are likely to help them. Because the name of the game in politics these days seems to be less ‘Can you help the most people?’ and more ‘How much can you hurt the people your supporters hate the most?’ ”

Speaking of which, his main story was about environmental racism. As Oliver explained, Black Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than other Americans, are 75 percent more likely to live in neighborhoods bordering industrial areas, and are three times more likely to die as a result of exposure to pollution. The discrepancies have little to do with income; studies show wealthy Black people breathe more harmful air than low-income whites.

This, in part, has to do with decades of redlining, the practice of starving certain communities — typically ones of color — of investment or financial services, which both devastates those places and traps residents in them. Often the communities are either adjacent to industrialized areas or see factories pop up around them. As Oliver demonstrated, a map of redlined Dallas neighborhoods overlaid on a map of Dallas industrial zones results in a large and non-accidental amount of overlap.

This practice is so pervasive and exacting that two different zip codes, located next to each other but with different demographics, can have life expectancies that vary up to 15 years.

“That is grim,” Oliver said. “That you can live 15 fewer years depending on your zip code is the worst zip code news since the time they added those four bullshit digits at the end. I don’t know what those are and I am never going to learn them.”

There was no shortage of racist examples for Oliver to choose from. An oil pipeline that took a crazy detour through Memphis in order to avoid majority white neighborhoods in favor of Black ones. An East Chicago, Indiana, public housing community located on land with levels of lead up to 200 times higher than permitted by law, and whose residents weren’t informed by the government of this fact for 31 years. Even a Black activist who meets resistance from environmentalists and conservationists when she suggests that some of their focus — and money — go toward protecting people in addition to plants and animals.

“Unless we take big steps to address environmental racism and call it what it is, a brutal divide is going to stay in place in this country, where some are treated like they’re worth protecting, and others like they can be sacrificed,” Oliver said when he wrapped up the segment.

Ending on a lighter note, he then played clips of local newscasters reciting rejected personalized license plates in their states, including FARTACUS in North Carolina and, in Florida, H00KER.