Opponents of these symbols argue that the Confederacy stood for the subjugation of a race of people, and that their display is a constant reminder that many people continue to endorse, or at least tolerate, the racial oppression for which the Confederacy fought. Many supporters of Confederate symbols, on the other hand, claim that they are motivated by pride in their “Southern heritage” as opposed to racial animosity—“Heritage, not Hate” is the familiar slogan.
In an effort to answer this question of regional pride or racial prejudice with data—rather than the heated rhetoric that typifies the debate—we analyzed two surveys of white Southerners: one of residents of Georgia, the other of residents of South Carolina. Our study is the first to rigorously compare the relative influence of racial prejudice and purportedly non-racist Southern pride on support for the Confederate battle emblem. We contend that if some whites support the flag because it represents a legacy in which they feel pride, then we should expect those people also to be knowledgeable about Confederate Civil War history. That is, for pride in Confederate heritage to be meaningful, a person would first have to know something about that history. On the other hand, if racial prejudice is the key reason that whites support Confederate symbols, then we should see that racially prejudiced attitudes are more widely held among white supporters of the Confederate flag than among its white opponents. First, it worth pointing out that there is a significant racial gap in support for the Confederate flag: in both South Carolina and Georgia, large majorities of African-Americans oppose the display of the flag on state grounds, whereas support among whites is much higher. Because African Americans are so much more opposed to both the Confederate flag and to racial prejudice, including them in the analyses below would strengthen our findings. Including only white respondents should not be interpreted as a statement that only whites’ views are relevant to this debate; only that we are subjecting our data to a tougher standard of evidence by analyzing the views of the group that is actually likely to support these symbols.