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White support for the Confederate flag really is about racism, not Southern heritage

A handout photograph posted to a Web site with a racist manifesto appears to show Dylann Roof, the suspect in the Charleston church massacre, posing with a confederate flag and a gun in an unknown location, in this photo with a digital timestamp of April 27, 2015.  Handout via Reuters
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The killing of nine black churchgoers by a white gunman, Dylann Roof, in Charleston, S.C., sparked a nationwide debate over the Confederate battle emblem.

Some, including Gov. Nikki Haley (R), have argued that the flag should be removed from the Capitol grounds. The South Carolina Legislature followed suit, voting overwhelming to open debate on the removal of the flag. Others oppose its removal. For example, Mike Ryhal, a member of the South Carolina House, referencing “South Carolina history,” said, “I don’t think it should be removed.”

This debate is not new, nor limited to South Carolina. Much of the discussion revolves around the question of whether the flag represents “heritage or hatred” (see, for example, here, here, and here). Drawing on rare survey data on this subject, we can shed light on this question. We find that white Southerners who support the Confederate flag are actually less knowledgeable about Southern history; no stronger in their attachments to fellow Southerners (after racial attitudes are taken into account); less tolerant of interracial dating; and more likely to deny that blacks are discriminated against in the labor market.

Our data come from a survey of 522 white Georgians conducted by the Survey Research Laboratory at Georgia State University in 2004. This survey was designed to assess opinions about three different potential state flags that were being considered at the time: one of these flags prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem:

The argument that respect for Southern heritage drives white support for the Confederate flag might lead one to think that flag supporters would be more knowledgeable about Southern history. We found exactly the opposite: whites with more knowledge about Civil War history are actually less supportive of the state flag prominently featuring the Confederate battle emblem:

Of those whites who got all three answers correct (identified Sherman and correctly and named two Civil War battles), only 34 percent preferred the state flag with the Confederate battle emblem. Of those who got zero answers correct, 73 percent preferred the state flag with the Confederate battle emblem. Furthermore, this relationship is present even when we statistically control for markers of social class such as income and education. White supporters of the Confederate battle emblem are distinguished not by their knowledge of Southern history but rather their ignorance of it.

Of course, it is possible that one could feel an affiliation for the South without knowing much about the Civil War. We therefore also examined whether those whites who say they “feel close to Southerners” are more likely to support the Confederate flag. This question is tricky, though, because such whites are also disproportionately likely to express unfavorable attitudes toward blacks. After taking account of racial attitudes, we found no meaningful relationship between feelings of closeness to Southerners and support for the Confederate battle emblem.

In contrast, attitudes toward blacks were strongly associated with support for the Confederate flag. Among those whites who say they would object if their child dated someone of a different race, preference for the Confederate battle emblem is a full 20 percentage points higher than it is among those whites who would not object:

Similarly, among whites who do not believe that blacks are discriminated against in the labor market, support for the Confederate flag is 30 percentage points higher than it is among those whites who believe there is continuing racial discrimination.

Of course, this survey is now over 10 years old.  It is possible, though in our view improbable, that the factors affecting support for the Confederate flag have changed significantly.

Moreover, none of the above shows that the Confederate flag only represents racial intolerance. No doubt there are some whites who favor the Confederate flag for reasons that are not wholly reducible to racial intolerance.

But the results do suggest that in general, white support for the flag is associated not with a deep knowledge of Southern history or a kinship with Southerners, but with racism — that is, not with heritage but with hatred.

Spencer Piston is an assistant professor of political science at the Campbell Institute at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Logan Strother is a PhD Candidate in the department of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

For related posts, see:

Which is more taboo: the Confederate flag or the rainbow flag?

What happened the last time South Carolina debated the Confederate flag? Hate, but also hope.

Around the world, do symbols like the Confederate flag stand for hate or hope?

Yes, Amazon and eBay can ban sales of Confederate merchandise. Is that good or bad?

Republicans say goodbye to the Confederate flag — and hello to a new strategy?