Although no one could have planned it this way, the recent seminar that I attended at Yale began only four days after the cold-blooded murder of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The focus of the conference was on ways of teaching nineteenth-century American slave narratives, and our conversations about race and American history took place against a backdrop of a national conversation about the meaning of one of the most controversial symbols in our nation’s past: the Confederate battle flag.
As a professional historian, it was an exhilarating and frustrating time. It was exhilarating in that it was one of those rare moments when it looked like the broader public might be alive to the power of the past in the present. It was frustrating—and continues to be—because that initial impression looks increasingly incorrect. The tragedy at Charleston has evoked an outpouring of dogmatic opinion about the Confederate battle flag, and we may very well be witnessing the emergence of a cultural consensus against public displays of the controversial symbol. And yet popular understanding of the battle flag’s historical connotations seem as ignorant as ever.
I’m not talking here about groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which I have written about earlier, much less the sort of person who would buy a t-shirt like the one pictured to the right, which I came across conspicuously displayed in front of a Gettysburg souvenir shop only a week after the photos of Dylann Roof and his Confederate flag swept the internet. (The shirt’s slogan—“If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson”—seems designed primarily to help the historically ignorant feel smugly superior.) In culturally controversial debates such as this one, there will always be a significant element of public opinion that is both dogmatic and impervious to evidence, and it is a waste of time to try to reason with them. As a former colleague of mine used to observe, you can’t reason someone out of a conviction that reason didn’t lead them to.
No, what has troubled me far more are the views of Americans not affiliated with such fringe groups. A CNN poll conducted ten days after the Charleston shooting offers some profoundly disturbing insights into popular attitudes concerning the Confederate battle flag. (To see the poll in its entirety, click here.) On the one hand, 55 percent of Americans now claim to oppose the display of the battle flag on government property (with the exception of museums). Why they do so is not entirely clear. In response to the query “Do you, yourself, see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” 57 percent of respondents associated the flag with southern pride, 33 percent linked it with racism, and 5 percent connected the flag equally with both.
In sum, more than three fifths of Americans (62 percent) deny that the Confederate battle flag has significant racist connotations.
Interestingly, such attitudes don’t vary significantly by region. The proportion of respondents who think of the flag as a symbol of racism was 40 percent in New England, 35 percent in the Midwest, 36 percent in the South, and 37 percent in the West. For the most part (and we have to be cautious here, because of the margins of error), when it comes to views of the Confederate flag, the South is more or less American in its perceptions.
Not surprisingly, views of the flag do vary dramatically by race. Nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of African Americans view the battle flag as a symbol of racism. Scarcely a quarter (28 percent) of whites would agree. To put it the other way around, 71 percent of white Americans don’t see the Confederate battle flag as a racist symbol. Among southern whites, that proportion is fully 82 percent.
What are we to make of these figures? I’ll be back soon with some thoughts.