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Why John Oliver compared schools to a Tyler Perry movie

Despite the fact that laws and policies have been enacted to ensure racial equality, the reality is that in many instances our country is still failing people of color — including children.  Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver spent a good part of his weekly show delving into the issue of school segregation and how it still exists, particularly in areas of the country you might not expect.

Many people assume that school segregation issues were solved in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act, which invalidated all laws surrounding “separate but equal.” However, over 50 years later, there are still school districts that are racially segregated, included many in the North, with New York City at the top of the list.

In Sunday’s “This Week Tonight” segment, John Oliver points out that despite its long history of racism, the South is actually working hard to provide equity within its school system. Perhaps it’s because they are actively fighting against an overtly racist past or simply because they can rightfully acknowledge that every child deserves a quality education. Whatever the reason, the South is doing better here. (Not great, but OK).

The North, however, is failing students of color  — particularly black students  — when it comes to education. In New York City, for example, the schools self-segregated due to factors like discriminatory housing practices and selective admissions processes. And as Oliver points out, NYC has seen its fair share of racism. “Of course racism exists in New York,” he says. “Have you never seen West Side Story?”

More: College’s segregated housing for black students makes a whole lot of sense

In his segment, Oliver notes studies that prove that racial diversity in schools has only positive effects on children of color and no negative impact on white kids. Whereas segregated schools actively put black children at a disadvantage, as in many cases, predominantly black schools have less experienced teachers and less funding, among other challenges. As Oliver reminds us all, “funding tends to follow white people around the way white people follow the band Phish around.”

NYC might present itself as the melting pot of this country, but its public schools certainly don’t reflect that. Because of a variety of factors, when the public schools are zoned, they do so within specific neighborhoods, resulting in schools that are either predominantly white or predominately black. And Oliver points out the obvious in his segment: “If you just assign kids to their neighborhood schools, and their neighborhoods are segregated, you will have a segregated school.”

And while a simple solution would be to create districts with diversity prioritized over neighborhoods, one of the biggest issues is that white parents are actively fighting to keep the schools the way they are (i.e., segregated and benefiting their white kids).

And that is what it comes down to in the end. White parents need to be the ones to speak out and say “Hey! Not everyone is getting an equal shot at a good education and we actually have the ability to potentially fix this.” But this isn’t happening, and people need to start explaining why. Because answers like “I don’t want my kid to have to walk an extra 10 blocks to get to school” are frankly bullshit when you stop and realize that those 10 blocks mean black children being able to access schools with strong curriculum, highly qualified teachers, arts and music programs and so much more.

More: Why teaching black history should not be limited to Black History Month

I understand that we all want what is best for our children, but think about what we’re doing when we send our children to segregated schools. For many, schools are microcosms of the larger world. So when white kids don’t see kids of color in their day-to-day lives, sitting next to them reading poetry or solving algebra equations, then they risk starting to see them as “others” and not as peers or friends. They also lose out on benefits they never realized they needed.

Yes, this will be uncomfortable to talk about, especially in predominantly upper-class white neighborhoods. Because that is where the change will have to occur. So what can we do about this? And more important, what can you do about this? Take a second to think about your own child’s school and the racial diversity it has (or doesn’t have). Look at surrounding school districts and compare them to your own. Listen to experts, like U.S. Education Secretary John King, as they call upon parents to help solve this problem. Listen to parents of color to see what they suggest.

I know we can do better. So, let’s get to work, parents. Let’s actively make our schools better for every child. As Oliver says as he ends his segment, “The benefits of truly diverse schools are obvious. The problem is often just our willingness to do it at all.”

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