Research on the Confederate flag, divisive politics and enduring meanings

 
Southern Heritage Confederate Flag demonstrators in Washington D.C., 2015 (Elvert Barnes)
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In the wake of the June 2015 mass shooting and anti-African American hate crime in a Charleston, S.C., church, many public officials, including the state’s governor, called for the removal of the Confederate flag from grounds near the South Carolina State House, and it was eventually taken down in July.

The origins of the pattern on the Confederate flag — specifically, the “battle flag” — and its precise historical meaning in the American Civil War are complex, as is its subsequent resonance in the decades after the war, and its symbolic import has been hotly contested in more recent decades. During the period 2000-2003, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi all saw significant public controversies over the symbolism of flags in their states, with various public measures and remedies proposed and debated. The central question remains whether the flag can stand distinctly as a generalized remembrance of Southern, geographically based heritage, or whether it is inextricably linked to the enslavement of African-Americans and racist ideology.

The immediate political and media focus in 2015 was on South Carolina, as that state continued to face outrage, pressure and sanctions from organizations around the country for flying the flag on public grounds. Still, seven other states in the South also have flags that make various references to the era of the Confederacy. Mississippi incorporates the Confederate battle flag into its current state flag; when a 2001 ballot measure proposed changing this, residents in that state roundly rejected any changes. Alabama has featured the flag as part of a Confederate memorial on the grounds of its state Capitol, too, although the state’s governor ordered its removal in the wake of the June 2015 event. The Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport, La., saw the Confederate flag continuing to fly as recently as 2011, when officials voted to take it down. For many, flying that flag on grounds where, in the past, lynchings and racist forms of justice were handed down, seemed to keep alive an offensive ideology. Throughout the region — off of official grounds — there remain myriad monuments, museum displays and other commemorations of the antebellum chapter in Southern history.

Polling in recent years has suggested mixed opinions on questions of flying the Confederate flag, with a 2013 YouGov survey finding that slightly more Americans see the flag as a symbol of Southern pride, as opposed to a racist symbol. A 2014 poll conducted among South Carolina residents found that responses to the issue divided along racial lines.

Survey data also continues to suggest that a majority of Americans consider the Civil War relevant to contemporary politics and public affairs. African-Americans are still disproportionately the target of hate crimes, and in regions where Jim Crow laws once operated there is strong evidence of continuing effects on health outcomes for black citizens.

The following papers and studies provide wider historical and analytical perspective on the symbolism of the Confederate flag and ongoing debates:

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“Pride or Prejudice?: Racial Prejudice, Southern Heritage, and White Support for the Confederate Flag”
Strother, Logan; Piston, Spencer, Ogorzalek, Thomas. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, June 2017. DOI: 10.1017/S1742058X17000017.

Abstract: “Debates about the meaning of Southern symbols such as the Confederate battle emblem are sweeping the nation. These debates typically revolve around the question of whether such symbols represent ‘heritage or hatred:’ racially innocuous Southern pride or White prejudice against Blacks. In order to assess these competing claims, we first examine the historical reintroduction of the Confederate flag in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s; next, we analyze three survey datasets, including one nationally representative dataset and two probability samples of White Georgians and White South Carolinians, in order to build and assess a stronger theoretical account of the racial motivations underlying such symbols than currently exists. While our findings yield strong support for the hypothesis that prejudice against Blacks bolsters White support for Southern symbols, support for the Southern heritage hypothesis is decidedly mixed. Despite widespread denials that Southern symbols reflect racism, racial prejudice is strongly associated with support for such symbols.”

 

“Region, Race and Support for the South Carolina Confederate Flag”
Christopher A. Cooper; H. Gibbs Knotts. Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 87, Number 1, March 2006.

Abstract: “”Objective. Existing research suggests that conservative racial attitudes are one of the strongest factors explaining support for the Confederate flag, but this conclusion has been reached by examining the attitudes of only white southerners. We provide a more complete understanding of this issue, focusing on both white and black opinion from across the country. Methods. We use a rolling cross-sectional survey with a large sample size to model support for the South Carolina Confederate flag nationally and then among two groups: southerners and nonsoutherners. Results. Although racial attitudes are important among both southerners and nonsoutherners, region and race also influence support for the Confederate flag. Southern whites have the greatest support for the flag followed by nonsouthern whites, nonsouthern blacks, and southern blacks. Conclusions. Support for the Confederate flag is not simply about racial attitudes, but a more complex phenomenon where region and race exert important influences.”

 

“Other People’s Racism: Race, Rednecks and Riots in a Southern High School”
Hardie, Jessica Halliday; Tyson, Karolyn. Sociology of Education, January 2013, 86(1): 83-102. doi: 10.1177/0038040712456554.

Excerpt: “The week of February 5, 2007, may have been like any other at North Carolina’s Cordington High School had it not been for the race riot. According to student and teacher accounts, it began early in the week when a black student overheard a white ‘redneck’ student say, ‘Let’s go lynch some ‘n*****s.’’… This incident, which occurred while we were conducting a study examining how law and authority affect school actors at more than 20 schools, brought into stark relief the unfinished business of racial reconciliation in the South. The southern United States is an important region in which to study race relations among youth and school racial conflict. Racial confrontations occur regularly in schools across the country, but the one that occurred in North Carolina involved symbols of racism and racial violence and intimidation tied to the Old South. Nor was it the only incident of racial unrest we heard about during our research. At another North Carolina high school, we learned from students and administrators about a race riot (this one with actual fighting) triggered by tensions about Confederate clothing worn by rednecks (as they were called by other students and faculty alike) and counter-Confederate clothing (declaring that the South will never rise again) worn by blacks in response. School officials also reported a dispute about a Confederate flag at Cordington a few years prior to our study. Similar to the incident in Jena, Louisiana, in 2007, in which a vicious fight broke out between black and white students after nooses were found hanging from a tree in the schoolyard, these incidents highlight the endurance of racist symbols and racial hostility between blacks and whites in the South. Yet unlike the Jena case, most racial incidents receive little attention outside of the communities in which they take place, leaving few opportunities for systematic analysis of the underlying factors and meaning making surrounding these conflicts.”

 

“Heritage or Hatred: The Confederate Battle Flag and Current Race Relations in the U.S.A.”
Moeschberger, Scott L. In Symbols that Bind, Symbols that Divide, Peace Psychology Book Series, 2014,  207-218.

Abstract: “With regions outside of the south flying the flag and the ‘bars and stars’ incorporated into merchandise with such things as deer, trucks, and even one juxtaposed with President Barack Obama. The symbolism of the Confederate flag seems to overstep the simple association with the geography of the civil war. Assuming that there are not an unusual amount of émigrés from the South, why do so many individuals use the Confederate flag as a symbol? Is it a statement supporting the cause of Southern slave owners and the oppression of blacks or an indication of some kind of solidarity with states’ rights and the desire for independence from the federal government? It is not unreasonable to see racist overtones in a Northern area where the Confederate flag is commonly flown. Grant County, Indiana was the location of the last lynching in the northern states (in the year 1930) and still harbors racial tensions. The sight of the old courthouse where the lynching was held still holds power for many blacks in the city of Marion. Some would be appalled at this implication of racism and assert that it is simply a part of being a Southerner and taking pride in that geographical heritage. This very topic was hotly debated in regard to whether the South Carolina state capitol building ought to fly the Confederate flag. This example illustrates that America, too, is faced with some of these powerful schematic symbols that elicit both pride and oppression. Does the Confederate flag represent a cultural heritage that has been neglected by historians and media, or does it symbolize hatred, discrimination, and white supremacy? These are not questions with easy answers, nor is there a simple answer to the question of how one treats schema-forming cultural symbols that elicits such powerful but polarized responses.”

 

“Black, White or Green? The Confederate Battle Emblem and the 2001 Mississippi State Flag Referendum”
Webster, Gerald R.; Leib, Jonathan I. Southeastern Geographer, 2012, 52(3), 299-326.

Abstract: “Contentious debates over whether it is appropriate to display the Confederate battle flag in public spaces have been waged across the American South since the late 1980s, with attitudes in these debates largely divided along racial lines. The most vitriolic debates occurred in the four states sanctioning the most prominent displays of the battle emblem: Alabama and South Carolina (where the flag flew over their state capitols), and Georgia and Mississippi (where the battle emblem was incorporated into their state flags). Although there were calls in all four states to address the legitimacy of the battle flag’s public display via public referenda, only in Mississippi has a statewide public vote been held. The Mississippi state flag has incorporated the battle emblem in its design since 1894. In April 2001, the state held a public referendum on whether to replace the 1894 flag with a new flag designed by a commission. The proposed new flag deleted the battle emblem and replaced it with a circle of twenty stars, but was rejected by an overwhelming majority of the state’s voters. In this paper, we examine the geography of the referendum vote through two different conceptions of electoral politics which aid in explaining the spatial patterns of the votes in Mississippi’s flag referendum: the electoral cleavage model and the traditionalist-modernizer model. Through cartographic and statistical analyses, we conclude that both models provide valuable insight into the vote and attitudes towards the Mississippi flag debate.”

 

“How Exposure to the Confederate Flag Affects Willingness to Vote for Barack Obama”
Ehrlinger, Joyce; et al. Political Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2011. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00797.x.

Abstract: “Leading up to the 2008 U.S. election, pundits wondered whether whites, particularly in Southern states, were ready to vote for a Black president. The present paper explores how a common Southern symbol — the Confederate flag — impacted willingness to vote for Barack Obama. We predicted that exposure to the Confederate flag would activate negativity toward Blacks and result in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. As predicted, participants primed with the Confederate flag reported less willingness to vote for Obama than those primed with a neutral symbol. The flag did not affect willingness to vote for white candidates. In a second study, participants primed with the Confederate flag evaluated a hypothetical Black target more negatively than controls. These results suggest that exposure to the Confederate flag results in more negative judgments of Black targets. As such, the prevalence of this flag in the South may have contributed to a reticence for some to vote for Obama because of his race.”

 

“Race Discourse and the U.S. Confederate Flag”
Holyfield, Lori; Moltz, Matthew Ryan; Bradley, Mindy S. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 2009, 12:4, 517-537, doi: 10.1080/13613320903364481.

Abstract: “Research reveals that racial hierarchies and ‘color-blind’ racism is maintained through discourse. The current study utilizes exploratory data from focus groups in a predominantly white southern university in the United States to examine race talk, the Confederate Flag, and the construction of southern white identity. Drawing from critical discourse analysis, we answer the following questions: first, to what extent do discursive strategies surrounding the Confederate Flag reflect more subtle forms of racism? Second, what does discourse surrounding use of the Confederate Flag reveal about the construction of southern white identity? Findings reveal that whiteness remains largely an ‘unmarked’ category as demonstrated via discursive strategies (downplaying and defensive diversions versus race competence). Educators, especially in the American south, may benefit from examinations of controversies over the U.S. Confederate Flag in order to challenge racism in the classroom.”

 

“Long Ago and Far Away: How U.S. Newspapers Construct Racial Oppression”
Shah, Hemant; Nah, Seungahn. Journalism, 2004, Vol. 5(3): 259-278. doi: 10.1177/1464884904041659.

Abstract: “This article examines how U.S. general-circulation newspapers construct and convey the idea of racial oppression. A Nexis database search found 146 news items published between 1990 and 2001 prominently using the phrase ‘racial oppression’. Content analysis numerically coded the ‘facts’ of racial oppression (that is the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how’) and a number of other structural features of the articles. Interpretive textual analysis considered the use of words and phrases to characterize the process of and those involved in racial oppression. The study found that the U.S. press constructed racial oppression in fairly narrow ways. In the news stories, forms of racial oppression typically occurred in the past. The stories focused on apartheid, slavery and the confederate flag, depicted the process as involving almost exclusively blacks and whites and emphasized narratives related to Mandela as hero, white guilt and absolution, bounded empathy and race and rationality.”

 

“Political Culture, Religion and the Confederate Battle Flag Debate in Alabama”
Webster, Gerald R.; Leib, Jonathan I. Journal of Cultural Geography, 2002, 20:1, 1-26, doi: 10.1080/08873630209478279.

Abstract: “The American South is beset by a series of widespread and vitriolic debates over the meaning of symbols associated with the short-lived Confederate States of America (1861-1865). The largest proportion of these controversies pertains to the Confederate Battle Flag and the contrasting understanding of the flag’s meaning by both black and white southerners. The purpose of this article is to examine the debate over the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag in the chambers of the Alabama House of Representatives. After analyzing a 1999 vote by legislators on the issue, the controversy is considered in the context of the South’s traditionalistic political culture and historic adherence to conservative Protestantism. The article concludes that both political culture and religion aid in an understanding of the passionate condemnations and defenses of the Confederate Battle Flag.”

 

“The South Carolina Confederate Flag: The Politics of Race and Citizenship”
Woliver, Laura R.; Ledford, Angela D.; Dolan, Chris J. Politics & Policy, December 2001, Vol. 29, No. 4.

Abstract: “The interest group and social movement mobilizations to remove the Confederate flag, which had been flying since 1962,from atop the South Carolina State Capitol dome provides an instance where large, issue-specific coalitions successfully expanded the scope of a conflict and framed an issue in a universalistic discourse of inclusive citizenship. The groups and movements seeking to keep the flag on the dome of the capitol experienced cascading defections in part based on a narrow vision of history the political context, and goals for the future. Based on 17 in-depth interviews with interest group activists; key members of the South Carolina legislature; and educational, religious, and business leaders active in the issue along with observations at five pro- and anti-flag demonstrations and rallies, this study seeks to explain how the effort to remove the Confederate flag was partially successful. The analysis includes media attention from 1962 to 2000 in South Carolina regarding the Confederate flag and public opinion on the flag over time. Prior interest group work helped prepare the terrain for the mobilizing effects of several galvanizing events — the NAACP tourism boycott and national media attention during the highly contested 2000 Republican primary in the state, which in turn pressured institutions-parties, the legislature, and the governor to respond. The struggle was an instance of applied philosophy.”

 

“Whose South Is It Anyway? Race and the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina”
Webster, Gerald R.; Leib, Jonathan I. Political Geography, 20 (2001) 271-299.

Abstract: “The states of the former Confederacy are embroiled in vitriolic debates over the display and meaning of the Confederate battle flag. The purpose of this study is to examine this conflict in South Carolina through an analysis of two legislative votes taken in the state’s House of Representatives. After first discussing the study’s relevance, this article provides a brief historical overview of the contested meanings of the flag. It then focuses upon the debate in South Carolina using a logistical regression analysis to model legislative voting on the issue. It finds legislative positions on the battle flag are strongly divided along partisan and racial lines. These finding are then discussed in the context of “ethnic” nationalism and whiteness studies.”

Last updated: August 15, 2017

 

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