If you’ve been following the news for the past two weeks, you’d think that the country has reached a consensus: The Confederate battle flag is an outdated emblem of a racist and shameful chapter in American history, and it must be taken down.
From the South Carolina capitol to Fort Sumter to Daytona International Speedway, Confederate flags are being lowered left and right in response to the apparently racially motivated June 17 killing of nine members of an African American church in Charleston, S.C.
When legislators in that state dithered over whether to remove the flag, for example, a 30-year-old activist climbed the pole and took it down herself — and was widely hailed as a hero.
Fort Sumter, the sea fort near Charleston where the Civil War started, has furled its Confederate flag, likely forever.
Private companies across the country have followed suit. Major retailers including Wal-Mart, eBay and Amazon have stopped selling items emblazoned with the Confederate flag. And on Tuesday, Daytona International Speedway announced that this weekend it will swap any flag, including the controversial Southern banner, for the Stars and Stripes as part of its July 4 celebrations.
“It doesn’t have a place in our sport,” Daytona President Joie Chitwood said of the Confederate flag.
In private, however, Americans are evenly split, 42 percent to 42 percent, over whether the Confederate flag is a racist symbol.
In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released Tuesday, 42 percent of respondents said the flag was not racist but rather a symbol of Southern history and heritage. But another 42 percent of respondents said the Confederate flag was racist and should be removed from state flags and official locations.
Responses varied widely according to race.
Only one third of white respondents considered the flag racist, with half saying it simply symbolizes Southern heritage.
More than 75 percent of African Americans, however, responded that the flag was racist and should be stripped from public spaces, according to USA Today. Only one in 10 black respondents thought the Confederate flag represented Southern heritage.
Opinions also varied based on region, with Southerners more likely to view the controversial flag as not racist. Forty-nine percent of Southerners said the battle banner is not racist, compared to 34 percent who said it is.
More Americans in the Northeast and West consider the Confederate flag racist than not — by 12 and 13 percentage point margins, respectively. Meanwhile, those in the Midwest were effectively split on the subject; 44 percent said it was racist while 42 percent did not.
The poll, which was conducted by phone with 1,000 adults across the country from June 25 through 29, also included questions about gun control.
If respondents were split over the issue of the Confederate flag, they were largely in unison on guns: 56 percent said tighter gun-control laws would not prevent more mass shootings like the one in Charleston.
More than three-fourths of respondents said easier access to guns would not prevent such incidents either. And Americans agreed by a 5-1 margin (78 percent vs. 15 percent) that Congress won’t pass gun control legislation any time soon.
“There is almost a thread of thinking running through the poll that nothing can be done to make any meaningful changes,” David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, told USA Today.
When it comes to the Confederate flag, however, change seems to be sweeping the South — in politics, if not in private attitudes.
Claiming Dylann Roof, who has been arrested in connection with the Charleston shooting, had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said the flag should be removed from the capitol. Other politicians in South Carolina and Mississippi made similarly muddled calls for the Confederate banner to be lowered.
And the South Carolina legislature — the one body actually empowered to order that the Confederate flag be removed from the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia — appears poised to take action. On Monday, the Post and Courier reported that the state’s House of Representatives and Senate both have sufficient votes to strip the Confederate battle flag from its spot within view of the statehouse.
If that happens, many Americans will celebrate. According to Tuesday’s poll, however, an equal number may not.
More about the controversy over the Confederate battle flag: