Last week, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Justice Department to pursue harsh sentences for anyone who destroys or vandalizes monuments, memorials or statues. The order targets activists who, as part of the record-breaking nationwide wave of protest over attacks against African Americans, have been asking officials to remove statues considered racially offensive — or doing it themselves.
What causes public officials and voters to favor removing Confederate symbols and monuments? Advocates for removal often argue for racial equity — while emphasizing that keeping such symbols in place hurts local business interests, as corporations and organizations increasingly decline to bring conferences or jobs to locations with public racist emblems.
Our recent research published in Political Research Quarterly finds economic arguments to be especially successful in persuading both elected officials and the public at large to support removing Confederate imagery.
Why do economics matter for decisions about removing Confederate imagery?
Over time, many in the South have come to see Confederate symbols as economic liabilities. For instance, in 2015, the CEO of a biofuel firm in South Carolina told Inc. magazine that colleagues outside the South “literally laughed” at the idea of starting a business in South Carolina because of its “backwoods, good ol’ boy” image, including the fact that, at the time, the Confederate flag flew at the state capitol. That year, the South Carolina government finally removed the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds after a white supremacist horrifically shot and killed nine black parishioners at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. And in 2020, the Mississippi Economic Council, a group backed by the chamber of commerce, advocated alongside civil rights groups to excise the Confederate emblem from Mississippi’s flag.
But many controversial statues and symbols remain in place, in and outside the South. What changes the minds of those who want to keep those symbols in place?
How we did our research
To learn whether talking about economic interests affects Southerners’ attitudes toward the presence of Confederate symbols, we conducted three studies of political elites and voters. In the first experiment, done in 2017, we conducted an original survey of more than 800 elected officials drawn from all county-level elected officials in 11 U.S. Southern states. In the second experiment, in 2018, we surveyed 549 city elected officials drawn from the group of all elected officials in the 125 largest cities within each of the same 11 U.S. Southern states. These survey samples of county and city elected officials are representative of the broader populations of local elected officials in the South; 12.7 percent of all county elected officials and 9.9 percent of all city elected officials in these largest 125 cities responded to our survey. Only about one-third of these elected officials were Democrats and the rest identified as Republican or nonpartisan. In both surveys, the majority reported their racial identifications as white.
In the final study, we conducted a parallel survey experiment in 2019, but on 859 voters from these 11 U.S. Southern states. These voters were recruited to take the survey via Amazon Mechanical Turk. While this sample was not necessarily representative of the mass public, it had several similar demographic characteristics. A majority of those survey respondents in this final study reported they identified as white.
In each study, elected officials and voters were randomly assigned to different groups. The first group — called a control group — read a question asking them to report how likely they were to support removing a Confederate flag from local government property on a scale from 1 (most likely to support removal) to 7 (least likely to support removal).
The second group read the same information, but with an additional sentence arguing that keeping the flag in public spaces would hurt local businesses. This group was then also asked whether they favored removing the Confederate flag from local government property.
In surveying the voters, we also asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” This language, also used in the American National Election Studies surveys, helps measure what social scientists call “racial resentment,” or attitudes that combine “anti-black feelings” with “moral traditionalism.”
Talking about racial symbols as economic problems makes a difference
We found that Southerners were far more likely to support removing the flag from public property when told it would hurt the local economy. Elected officials in Southern cities went from “somewhat likely” to favor removal to “very likely” when they heard the economic message. County elected officials not presented with the economic message most frequently said they were “neither likely nor unlikely” to support removal, but those who were pushed to think about economics moved toward “somewhat likely” to remove the Confederate symbol.
Voters responded similarly: Those who read the economic argument were moved about half a point on the seven-point scale in the direction of favoring removal of Confederate symbols. That’s similar in size to the shift among Southern elected officials.
Political scientists Andrew Searles and Nathan Kalmoe reported last week at TMC that individuals with higher levels of racial resentment were more likely to oppose removal of the Confederate flag. Our research also showed racial resentment was correlated with greater support for Confederate symbols. However, mentioning economic consequences generally shifted individuals’ support for removing the flag in roughly the same amount, no matter how little or how much racial resentment voters reported.
Why this matters
While Confederate symbols fall across the country, others remain. Arguments citing economic threats change the minds of both Southern elected officials and voters.
Christian R. Grose (@christiangrose) is an associate professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southern California and is the academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute.