I spent Memorial Day in New Orleans, where I watched a group of citizens lay a wreath at the foot of a statue of Jefferson Davis. It was a jarring reminder of how the South understands American history. Memorial Day was founded after the Civil War to honor Union soldiers. When Southerners choose to memorialize Confederate leaders, it is an act of subversive historical revision and an indication of the unresolved political and cultural anxieties that stir just below the surface of the "New South."
The white New Orleanians paying their respects to Davis made me nervous. Few things disgusted Confederates more than property-owning women, free blacks and evidence of miscegenation. I am all of these, so I feel the very legitimacy of my citizenship is challenged by their nostalgia. But I noticed that those gathered at the monument appeared to be mostly senior citizens. In contrast, young New Orleanians were hanging out in integrated groups in the park, listening to music, drinking beer and worrying about how the impending hurricane season would affect the BP oil disaster.
The generational divide in how these Southerners spent Memorial Day was jarring and instructive. In May, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill cutting state funding to schools that offer classes "designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group" or "advocating ethnic solidarity." The law aims to ban ethnic studies curriculums and implies that classes in African-American history or Latino literature are dangerous and discriminatory. Then the Texas State Board of Education voted to introduce a considerably more conservative slant to the social studies curriculum. In the revised Texas version of history, there is an increased emphasis on Phyllis Schlafly, segregationist George Wallace and the National Rifle Association, while the United Nations is presented as an enemy of American sovereignty and the separation of church and state is reduced to an ideological suggestion rather than a constitutional mandate.
The celebration of Confederate traitors as American heroes, the whitewash of school curriculums and the conservative reinterpretation of national history are weapons in America’s decades-long culture war. These policies reflect an impulse similar to the Cultural Revolution of Communist China: an attempt to gain authority by controlling the very definitions of truth available to young people. After all, it is among young Americans that conservatives are losing this war, and if they are serious about taking back their country, the education of American youth is the critical terrain where they plan to make a stand.
Young Americans are significantly different from their older counterparts. At the end of the Clinton administration a majority of young Americans strongly supported multicultural education and believed that the government should ensure integrated schools and workplaces. In the year George W. Bush was re-elected, an overwhelming majority of young Americans believed gay men and lesbians should have equal protection in housing and employment and should be protected under hate crimes legislation. Barack Obama garnered two of every three votes cast by people under 30. Across parties, ideologies, regions and religions, young people are less likely to subscribe to racial stereotypes, more likely to support legal equality for gay Americans and more likely to believe tolerance is an important ideal. These enduring generational trends have prompted some observers to question the long-term viability of the GOP—which seems to be growing older but not grander.
These statistics are comforting for progressives, who tend to believe that generational replacement will be enough to usher in a new liberal majority. They wax poetic about how the Obama generation—young people coming of age with a black president, female secretary of state and Hispanic justice of the Supreme Court—will undoubtedly extend the social safety net, end discriminatory state practices and create a more just nation. But the differences between younger and older Americans are neither automatic nor inevitable; they are the result of demographic, policy and curricular changes that occurred as the result of protest and struggle in post–civil rights America.
Although poor urban minorities continue to suffer the effects of hyper-segregated communities, young white Americans live in a more diverse world than their parents did as children. More than ever, white children learn in integrated classrooms, have mothers who work outside the home, encounter racial minorities in positions of authority, learn about different religious traditions, read literature by diverse authors, encounter same-sex families as a routine part of the popular culture and have technology-based access to a dizzying array of opinions. These experiences are widely seen as necessary components for contemporary citizenship. In fact, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Bollinger decision, the state’s compelling interest in ensuring diverse educational environments is the last legal standard on which affirmative action rests.
Social conservatives shudder with apocalyptic anxiety about these generational trends. They understand that the best defense against this frightening, changing world is to wrest control of the historical narrative. To retake the country, they must first reshape young people’s reality by revising the meaning of their daily lives. They must make traitors into heroes, erase the contributions of marginal groups, decry self-knowledge as sedition and reinforce fear of those who are different. I’m reminded of the lyrics of a song in South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s controversial 1949 musical: "You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,/You’ve got to be taught from year to year,/It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—/You’ve got to be carefully taught." Arizona and Texas policy-makers seem to be using the lyrics as a guide to curriculum development, but they may find that the world has already moved beyond their fearful grasp.