Is it time to finally dispense with the Confederate flag? This week, the US Supreme Court upheld a Texas policy that barred the image of the flag on license plates. Also this week, the mass murder of African-American worshipers in South Carolina trained the public’s focus squarely on a controversial symbol in their midst: the flag on the grounds of the Capitol Building. It’s a symbol that’s not used by South Carolina alone: Mississippi also incorporates the image into its official flag, a practice that began only in the mid-20th century.
Arguments for and against this symbol are well known: Some find value in the flag as an historical representation of the valiant South, a testimony to their regional and cultural sense of identity and heritage. Others find it a loathsome link to some of America’s most pernicious social practices — not only 19th-century slavery but of the Jim Crow era that followed. Their outrage has led to some remarkable political episodes, including the arrest of one black state legislator in the 1980s who tried to scale a government building to take one down.
There’s at least some truth in both of these positions. Yet it’s impossible to deny that the flag today has become the preferred calling card for some of the most loathsome quarters in society.
In Montgomery, Ala., the Southern Poverty Law Center has carefully tracked the proliferation of active hate groups nationwide, including those known as neoconfederates.
These are not the folks who just dress up to reenact battles; rather, the neoconfederates lament the demise of the basic principle that made slavery possible — that some people in fact are not created equal. Their aim is to reinstate that order, and their brand heavily relies on the rebel flag. Further, their headquarters are almost entirely located in the old Confederacy. According to the latest records from the law center, the state with the largest number of current neoconfederate groups is South Carolina.
Just as groups use them as brands to mobilize, flags as symbols also can be deployed by individuals to convey a point of view. Photos of Dylan Roof, the accused suspect in the Charleston killings, show him with a Confederate flag on his license plate, and wearing patches of two flags from apartheid-era colonies: South Africa and Rhodesia. Whatever else might be said about those symbols, the advocacy of a racial domination that these flags stand for is unmistakable. So, too, is the Confederate flag, in the minds of many Americans (including those who favor these views).
One cannot easily draw a causal line between a flag and social behavior, but social science shows us that the link between this symbol and ideology is more than fleeting. Studies show that the places where online keyword searches of racial epithets about African-Americans and other nonwhite groups are most common are in areas where the Confederate flag once flew as the symbol of government.
The evidence can be found in the political arena as well. In a recent Supreme Court case about voting rights, I along with a team of social science and legal scholars presented work to the court about the geographic distribution of racially biased viewpoints in the political sphere, which fuels discriminatory behavior like racially polarized voting. The pattern is remarkably consistent. We found that whites living in the states targeted by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — states with such pronounced records of discrimination that any new election laws had to be submitted for special review — more frequently agree with assertions that black people have “too much influence” in government. Indeed, whites living in these same states also report higher measures of racial resentment than those living elsewhere. With few exceptions, these were the places that supported the Confederacy and that later opposed desegregation.
Do these patterns alone prove, as Chief Justice Roberts wryly asked in a hearing, that white people in the South are more racist than elsewhere? Not necessarily, but biased views born of a theory of racial superiority occur more commonly there.
What does this have to do with a flag? For all its historical merit, the flag conveys and inspires an idea that is not just unappealing but decidedly antidemocratic. And in an environment where these troubling views are prevalent, even a passing endorsement of these symbols by the state can be dangerous.
Kareem Crayton is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina.