Both entitlement and erasure are key to how grievance politics work: entitlement, because it infuses a sense of unjust loss, and erasure, because it makes that sense of loss singular and heightens the sense of injustice. This is not a new dynamic. It lives in the 150-year history of the Lost Cause, in an ongoing century of claims that Christianity is under attack, in 50 years of fist-shaking about affirmative action as “reverse racism.”
Which makes the campaign stop at Stone Mountain, a shrine to the lie of the “Lost Cause,” particularly important. The politics of the Lost Cause — that Confederate soldiers had fought bravely, that the war had been about states’ rights, that life had been better under slavery for both the enslaver and the enslaved — was the country’s original grievance politics, an attempt to rewrite history to make the cause just, the defeat tragic and the restoration of antebellum values urgent. Stone Mountain serves as a monument to false history, built on a site where an organization devoted to terrorizing Black people regularly convened.
To first erect a false history, then decry its demolition as historical erasure is to continue to stand in the way of telling a truer story. Repackaged in 2021 as “political correctness” and now as “cancel culture,” variations of grievance politics continue to play a central role in American life.
It’s there in the hand-wringing over the 1619 Project and concerns that a triumphalist view of US history might be challenged in classrooms and newspapers. It’s there in the insistence that Christianity is under attack by everything from health care legislation to trans equality laws.
This is where the history of the Tulsa massacre is instructive. The 1921 racist pogrom, which took place at the same time the UDC was gathering funds for the Stone Mountain monument, destroyed not only a community but generations of wealth. And then it was carefully erased: the law enforcement records related to the massacre disappeared; the story that helped incite the massacre was removed from the local paper’s archive.
Grievance politics has always relied on a central claim: that the aggrieved have a special claim to be at the center of the American story and to control the direction of the country. That is why challenging false histories and highlighting suppressed ones poses such a threat. To look at the real history would mean to acknowledge that grievance politics hasn’t been about righteousness or freedom or patriotism, but about the retention of power by the few at the expense of everyone else.