Why do some whites support the Confederate flag?

In a recent article published at the Du Bois Review, Spencer Piston (Boston University), Tom Ogorzalek (Northwestern University) and I argue that racial prejudice explains mass white support for the Confederate Flag quite well, and that there is very little empirical support for the racially innocuous “heritage” argument. The full article is available here. We also wrote up the historical and contemporary opinion findings for broader audiences; they’re available here and here.

In response to our article at the LSE’s USAPP blog, L.J Zigerell, a political scientist at Illinois State University, tweeted the following image of an abstract to an academic paper (emphasis Zigerell’s):

After reading the Wright and Esses article, I responded with the following:


This morning, Zigerell responded with a blog post at his website. He makes three arguments/points (presented below, in blue), which I’ll respond to in turn.

1. I do not dispute the claimed correlation between White Southerners’ racial attitudes and support for the Confederate battle flag, but the Wright and Esses 2017 analysis suggests an important causal claim that a meaningfully-large percentage of White Southerners support use of the Confederate battle flag for reasons unrelated to racial animus. Is there evidence that that causal claim is not correct?

2. I think that a “‘heritage’ doesn’t tell us much” claim should be based on the performance of measures of pride in Southern heritage. Civil War knowledge and linked fate with Southerners are not measures of pride, so these measures cannot support a claim about the low explanatory power of pride.

3. Could you articulate what is inadequate about the Wright and Esses racial attitude measures? Given the results that Carney and Enos reported here, racial resentment does not appear to be an adequate measure of racial attitudes.

To each of his points/questions:

  1. There is evidence that some fraction of Confederate flag supporters are motivated by something other than racism. As we wrote in the LSE-USAPP post:
    “To be very clear, we do not make the claim that racism is the only source of support for Confederate icons; nor that every supporter of those icons is racist.”
    In fact, we also have a finding in which pride in southern heritage correlates with support for the Confederate flag after controlling for a very limited measure of racial prejudice.

    But the claim that the authors of this MTurk study advance, that this is true of a majority of white Southerners, is untenable. MTurk is an excellent platform for experimental work, but cannot be validly used for observational studies. MTurkers are very young and highly educated, among other things, which makes it impossible to generalize beyond the sample. This is particularly problematic for the claim advanced by Wright and Esses, and highlighted by Zigerell, that a majority of respondents in their MTurk sample don’t have prejudiced attitudes toward blacks. Nationally representative samples routinely find that a majority of whites do harbor these attitudes.

  2. “Southern pride” cannot be assumed to be racially innocuous—particularly when the object of that pride is a failed rebellion whose stated purpose was the perpetuation of race-based slavery. The premise of our argument on this point is that “Southern pride” should have some substance if it is a real thing. One oft-cited source of pride in Southern heritage is the battlefield valor of Confederate soldiers. Another purported source of pride is their forebears’ willingness to fight and die for “freedom”—their states’ rights (setting aside for the moment that the “right” in question was that to own slaves). Thus it stands to reason that if this “pride” is rooted in battlefield valor or willingness to die for a principle (we’ll call it self-government), then those who feel such pride will know more than others about Southern Civil War history. Yet when we test this empirically—in a representative state sample, we find that knowledge of Civil War history is strongly and negatively correlated with support for the Confederate battle flag, net of controls (including education). Or to put it a little differently: We should ask why—if pride in southern heritage is racially innocuous—is  knowledge of southern heritage negatively correlated with support for the chief symbol of southern heritage?

    Another way to think about it: what is southern pride? What is it, precisely, that folks are proud of? We find little support for the claim that this pride is rooted in knowledge of the Civil War. And given the last 160 or so years of Southern history, it seems strange to assume that Southern pride is innocent of racial bias. At base, this is an empirical claim that no one, to my knowledge, has presented compelling evidence to support. We sought to test the claim that “Southern-ness” has simply taken on a cultural meaning of its own—one that might be racially innocuous. Yet we found, in a nationally representative sample, that white warmth toward Southerners is strongly correlated with racial prejudice. That is, prejudice toward blacks is positively associated with warmth toward southerners, especially among whites who live in the south. This finding seriously undercuts the claim that self-reported pride should be considered racially innocuous.

    Finally, why is the relationship between pride in southern heritage and support for the Confederate flag, tenuous as it is, limited to white people?

  3. There is a vast literature in political science on the measurement of racial attitudes. The measure used in the MTurk study you point to does not appear, and for good reason. Is the argument really that admitting in a survey that “In my everyday life, I find black people disturbing” adequately captures racial prejudice in the United States today?

To summarize, I’ll say again that racial prejudice goes much further in explaining white support for the Confederate flag than does southern pride, and that the claim that a majority of Confederate flag supporters are motivated by racially innocuous southern pride has no solid empirical basis. The best evidence suggests that “southern pride” itself is bound up with racial prejudice.


L.J Zigerell responded to my blog post here. It seems to me that Zigerell’s dissatisfaction with our arguments regarding white attitudes toward the Confederate flag boils down to persistent qualms with our measures of the key independent variables, “Southern pride” and racial prejudice.

With respect to measuring (or proxying) Southern pride: I don’t think we’re likely to agree on this point. We do not make the claim that our measure of pride is perfect, only that it is the best that has yet been used; and we maintain that this is true for the reasons outlined in the article, and in my above post. One can always imagine unobserved variables that might render an observed relationship spurious (at least in observational studies). The burden is not on us to dispel every imaginable argument regarding some unobserved variable.

At this point I’ll reiterate two things. First, we do not deny that some fraction of whites who support the flag may do so for non-racist reasons. But what are those reasons? This question points toward my point: if “Southern pride” is a meaningful concept then it has to have some substance. The most commonly referenced source of such pride by defenders of the Confederate flag is Southern Civil War history. So if we take the flag’s most outspoken defenders at their word, then our measure is nearly ideal. But our evidence powerfully undercuts this claim. The fact that warmth toward Southerners is strongly associated with racial prejudice casts further doubt on the presumption of race-neutral Southern pride. Again, this is not to say that some southern whites might have non-prejudiced views and have “Southern pride”—only that this should not be the default assumption in light of the evidence.

Again we ask, if “Southern pride” is not rooted in—and does not even lead to—some very basic knowledge of the “War Between the States,” then what exactly is this pride? And, if this pride is neither racist nor rooted in appreciation for Southern Civil War history, why is it represented by a Confederate symbol?

With respect to measuring racial attitudes: a. “Old-fashioned,” or “blatant” racism captures a very limited range of prejudicial attitudes—those that are among the most extreme. And while “old-fashioned” racism has recently been on the rise after decades of decline, a wide range of prejudiced attitudes that are not captured by measures of old-fashioned racism remain highly politically and socially consequential. Importantly, far more whites today report prejudiced attitudes than blatantly racist attitudes. Thus exclusive focus on “blatant” racism would very likely lead one to significantly underestimate the prevalence of racial prejudice in any given sample.
b. On the thermometer approach: While I appreciate the point that many respondents to the ANES rated Blacks above fifty (“warmly”), I would suggest that if a respondent rates Whites at 80 or 90, but Blacks at 60, that reflects a meaningful difference in attitudes toward the two groups, regardless as to where exactly the two ratings fall on the thermometer scale. That is, the difference is itself meaningful, independent of the absolute values assigned to the groups—especially so when the key question of interest regards relative attitudes toward two distinct groups (as is the case here).