On Losing a Lost Cause: Gen Z Fighting False Facts

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In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the Black Lives Matter movement has fervently pushed for the removal of Confederate symbols. The main targets are statues that honor Confederate soldiers and leaders, artifacts protected by the Lost Cause movement. Since mid-July, Confederate monuments in over 22 U.S. cities have been removed in response to the protests, generating widespread debate over what these monuments symbolize. 

The controversy that has arisen as a result of demand for the removal of Confederate symbols is divisive. Fifty-two percent of Americans support removing Confederate statues from public areas, while 44% believe that removing the monuments is equivalent to erasing history. But the “history” that these Confederate monuments represent is actually a revisionist one.

The Lost Cause is an alternative history created by descendants of Confederate veterans. The movement glorifies the Confederacy as a just and heroic cause. The Lost Cause’s doctrine, laced with antebellum racism, states that slavery was not the primary reason for secession (although contradicted in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America). Confederate rhetoric insists that slaves were “unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom” and were happy to work on plantations. Simply put, the Lost Cause is a propaganda vehicle for preserving pre-war Southern culture, honoring Confederate leaders, and condemning post-Civil War rights given to African Americans while characterizing the hardships of slavery as historically irrelevant.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was one of the first groups to adopt this ideology. One of their most successful tactics to memorialize the Confederacy was the erection of statues to preserve the Lost Cause and glorify the Confederacy as “Southern culture.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these Confederate statues were built during the Jim Crow era, as well as during the Civil Rights movement. They featured slave-owning Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. This was years after the Civil War ended. The statues were meant to send a clear message to African Americans that they “do not belong here.” Confederate statues are racism embedded in concrete.

However, it was the UDC’s academic reinforcement of the Lost Cause that resulted in its widespread influence. The UDC created guidelines for Southern history textbooks and nixed any books that didn’t “accord full justice to the South.” The restraining of factual information resulted in textbooks depicting romanticized versions of the slavery-era South. Approved school books glorified Southern “heroes,” while rejected books were dismissed for reasons such as “speaking of a slave owner of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves.” The revisionist history jumped off the pages and was consumed by young students who did not know any better. Today, many Southern schools still teach from a curriculum permeated by the values of the Lost Cause. 

Daniel Fountain, a history professor at Meredith College in North Carolina, was indoctrinated into the Jacksonville, Florida chapter of the Children of the Confederacy when he was two years old. The Children of the Confederacy, a subordinate organization of the UDC, was created to teach the tenets of the Lost Cause to children. Professor Fountain writes, “The end product of their efforts was a public narrative that made generations of white Southerners feel good about their ancestors […] It was incredibly effective.” Many children in this group grew up to be the segregationists of the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights movement. Professor Fountain understands why so many Southerners feel attached to the Confederacy, saying, “…I do understand some people’s persistence in clinging to the Lost Cause. For many, it came as mother’s milk.” 

While the Lost Cause may seem like paleoconservative rhetoric of the past, it’s not. The Lost Cause is championed by neo-Confederates, who are still spreading their beliefs in 2020. White nationalists, Southern nationalists, separationists, neo-Confederates, and the Ku Klux Klan are all labeled as official groups that defend the Lost Cause. Members of these groups are included in the 44% who want to preserve Confederate statues.

Since the string of Black Lives Matter protests began in late May, neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups have shot and driven into activists, supported President Trump’s use of tear gas against peaceful protesters, and threatened to bomb “the damn pigs away”.

But Gen Z was born digital.

Gen Z has the right timing, resources, and voice to stop the Lost Cause in its tracks. Although it would be naive to say that Gen Z will eliminate racism, Gen Z does have the tools to counter the spread of neo-Confederate rhetoric.

Daunting as it may sound, Gen Z might be the only generation able to initiate this change. Advocacy runs through our veins. As the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history, Gen Zers encounter racism daily. Gen Zers are fired up, and have the tech-savviness to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Gen Z knows the ins and outs of social media. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd protests, Gen Z has converted social media into a platform to advocate for racial justice. By using Twitter threads and Instagram graphics to explain complex racial subjects in just the swipe of a finger, Gen Zers reach millions within minutes. Through cyberspace, Gen Zers have created forums, organized protests, and held crucial conversations about race. Gen Z can discern valid information from alternative histories and facts (e.g., the Lost Cause). We can use our collective voice to inject important information into mainstream conversation. 

The Lost Cause’s rhetoric has reached almost every corner of society, from healthcare to policing. We might not be able to change deep-seated structural racism until we are adults. Still, we can focus on education – and we can focus on it now. As we continue to educate adults and children around us, we can unpack individual implicit biases, stereotypes, and micro-aggressions in our words and actions. 

Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out of it. Just ask Professor Fountain. The distorted history taught to him as a child was replaced by what he learned once he went to an out-of-state college. Professor Fountain writes, “At times, the contradictions between what I was taught as a child and what I discovered as a college student left me with intellectual whiplash and feeling saddened or even betrayed. But facing such compelling factual ammunition, the Lost Cause lost its power over me.”

Baby Boomers advocated for racial justice in their youth, but then reversed their viewpoints in their 30s and 40s. Unlike our predecessors, Gen Z will need to stay its course and use its voice and tools to be relentless in the fight against American racism. Boomers were the “Me Generation.” Gen Z has the chance to be the “We Generation.”

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