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.

TshirtI’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.


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  3. Symbols are powerful. To take an existing symbol and re-purpose it can be detrimental to its original meaning. The confederate flag and the rainbow are 2 powerful examples. I must preface this with assurances that I bear no animosity towards southern whites (racist or not) or the LGBT community, just object to the embezzlement of the confederate flag and rainbows.
    Neither displaying a rainbow should not denote that one is homosexual, nor should display of the confederate flag indicate that one is racist, BUT, unfortunately this is not the case. To make matters worse, the inconsistent byzantine structure of elementary school education across the nation that causes history to be separated and not make sense until college, if one is privileged enough to attend, elective courses make sense of events in both histories, black and white, by teaching them simultaneously to relate the causes and catalysts of events that have occurred.
    When the only exposure one has to the confederate flag is when American hate groups and the KKK leave images and flags of the Confederate flag as calling cards after terrorist action, unfortunately, it will only have a racist and evil connotation associated and attached to it.
    The succession of the south, would have resulted in 2 Americas, the USA and the CSA. The south, CSA wanted to preserve their way of life and financial well-being that unfortunately meant perpetuating the institution of slavery. Slaves had monetary value. Weekly food rationing demonstrated the relative values placed on slaves. Men fared best, followed by women, children, and older slaves, respectively. A matured man slave of good physique and steady temper and average working ability, and not disposed to run away, was worth in the slave market as high as $3000. This is not a promotion of slavery, just merely an explanation. Slaves were valued property encouraged to proliferate. The hate groups that confiscated the Confederate flag as symbol, placed no value on black lives and their goal was to subdue, expatriate or exterminate communities of slave descendants.
    The history and meaning of the flag has become distorted-not taught well in northern states to begin with- and it will be difficult to take back. This is American history and belongs to all of us regardless of black/white or north/south. Northern states text books tell the history with union spin on it, as I’m sure Confederate states spin the yarn with a southern twist as each state has their own board of education departments.
    As we are now all unified under one banner, Confederate history does not disappear. What should be a symbol of testament to the right, strength and ability for all to openly disagree- NOT ADVOCATING VIOLENCE OR WAR, with majority government policies or rules as well as and not restricted to “Southern pride”.

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  9. Jack Be Nimble

    Perhaps if our nation had confronted the issue of racism and the economic problems of the newly freed slaves at the end of the Civil War instead of putting in place Jim Crow we might be further along on our quest of racial justice today. At the rate we are going I am convinced it may well take another hundred years to erase the damage done to our society by the combination of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The influence of history seems to be very persistent, much more so than most of us realize. We need to realize that we tolerated slavery and then racial discrimination for at least 150 years and we have only been trying to change the impact of those tragic events since the 1960s. The disconnect between the races as seen in the statistics you quote illustrates just how far we have to go!

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