People across the nation divided on Confederate flag

Published: Thursday, August 10, 2006 – 6:00 am
By Christopher Cooper and Gibbs Knotts

What images come to mind when people think of South Carolina? To many, the state conjures visions of Southern hospitality, white sandy beaches and rolling foothills — or, as the state marketing campaign trumpets, smiling faces and beautiful places.

During the height of the Confederate flag controversy, however, images of South Carolina were much less positive. Some reporters and political observers labeled South Carolinians as racists and assumed that the opinions of non-Southerners would be anti-Confederate flag and anti-South Carolina. Many in the media also suggested that African-Americans, regardless of region, would oppose flying the flag atop the Statehouse.

The negative images of South Carolina also had economic implications. Boycotts by the NAACP and other groups affected the state’s economy and some observers suggested that the Confederate flag prevented Mercedes from building a plant in South Carolina.

Adding fuel to the economic fire, the flag controversy coincided with the vitally important 2000 South Carolina presidential primaries, placing residents of the Palmetto State under an even-brighter national spotlight. Many grew tired of the controversy and, by the end, agreed with The (Columbia) State political reporter Lee Bandy when he told CNN that "most South Carolinians want this issue done with and gone."

Despite the national focus and the political and economic implications, we know very little about the opinions of average Americans concerning the Confederate flag in South Carolina. We know the views of Al Gore, Wesley Clark, John McCain and George W. Bush, but what about the opinions of people across the United States — whites and blacks, Southerners and non-Southerners? Do the regional and racial divisions suggested by the media hold up under closer scrutiny?

To answer these questions, we analyzed national survey data from more than 5,500 Americans in a 2000 Annenberg School of Communication study. This systematic, national sample allowed us to move past conventional wisdom and develop a more comprehensive explanation of support — or lack thereof — for the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

To our surprise, Americans were almost evenly split on opinions about the Confederate flag — 51 percent of Americans wanted the flag removed from atop the South Carolina Statehouse and 49 percent wanted the flag to stay. There was more support for the Confederate flag among Southerners (59 percent preferred the flag remain) than among non-Southerners (47 percent wanted it removed), but these differences, while statistically significant, were not as dramatic as many in the media had us believe.

When we analyzed the data from the Annenberg study, we noticed something else quite astonishing. Although whites were much more likely to support the flag than blacks, a surprising 26 percent of blacks nationally supported keeping the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse in South Carolina.

As native Southerners, this struck us as an odd finding, so we began to study the opinions of blacks more carefully. We found that regional differences were once again important, but that region had a different impact on blacks than on whites. Black Southerners were significantly more likely to oppose the flag than black non-Southerners. We believe this to be true because Southern blacks grew up closer to the issue, likely saw more Confederate flags and had more interactions with flag supporters.

Although region and race were the most obvious suspects, we also examined other predictors of support for the Confederate flag. Older people were less likely to support the Confederate flag than their younger counterparts, although this pattern disappeared in the South. Americans living in rural areas, people with conservative racial attitudes and those with lower levels of education also were more likely to support flying the Confederate flag.

In the end, our study illustrated that people across the country are quite divided on this polarizing political symbol. We found that simple explanations of heritage or hate do not adequately explain reactions to the Confederate flag. Views on the flag are shaped by a host of factors — both personal and environmental. Being aware of the patterns of support for the Stars and Bars can help us move past stereotypes and toward an informed dialogue on this controversial issue.

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