What the Confederate flag means in America today

Linley SandersData Journalist
January 13, 2020, 6:00 PM GMT+0

The Confederate flag was designed to represent a divided nation.

It was flown during the Civil War when 11 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas — broke from the nation to defend the practice of slavery. The Confederate Army lost that war more than 150 years ago, but the battle flag still represents a deep and bitter divide across America today.

YouGov asked more than 34,000 Americans to say whether the Confederate flag most represents racism or heritage (additionally, panelists were allowed to select “Don’t know” or “neither of these” as responses). The poll was conducted after Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, said that the Confederate flag meant “service, sacrifice and heritage” in her state until a white supremacist “hijacked” its meaning and killed nine Black Americans. Following that shooting, the Confederate flag was permanently removed from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds.

For a plurality of Americans, the Confederate flag represents racism (41%). But for about one-third of Americans (34%) — particularly adults over 65, those living in rural communities, or non-college-educated white Americans — the flag symbolizes heritage.

The former Confederate states, today

The idea of the Confederate flag primarily representing heritage is divisive even among the former Confederate states of America, according to state-level data collected by YouGov. Though a couple of former Confederate states believe the flag is more representative of heritage than racism, that is not the case for all.

Virginia, in particular, is more likely than other former Confederate states to consider the flag a sign of racism (46%) over heritage (33%). In recent years, the state has argued over whether to keep monuments of Confederate military leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on display, leading to well-covered legal debates on the implication of the Confederate flag. Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore explained the case by writing: “While some people obviously see Lee and Jackson as symbols of white supremacy, others see them as brilliant military tacticians or complex leaders in a difficult time.”

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North Carolina, which narrowly said the flag represents racism over heritage (43% vs. 39%), has grappled with how to handle the monuments in recent years. In 2017, North Carolina’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, asked the state’s historical commission to move the symbols because “We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery.”

Looking at the Census-designated subsections of the United States: New England (49% vs. 25%) and the Pacific coast (44% vs. 27%) are the most likely regions to say that the Confederate flag is a sign of racism over heritage. Other parts of the country are more narrowly divided. The East South Central, West South Central, West North Central, and Mountain divisions are all split within the margin of error on whether the Confederate flag is a sign of racism or heritage.

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For Americans over 55, it’s heritage

Americans older than 55 chose heritage over racism by a clear margin when asked what the Confederate flag means.

Those between 55 and 64 say the Confederate flag represents heritage (41% to 36%), which is a margin that only widens for Americans over 65 (49% vs. 32%). In contrast, a plurality of adults under 44 years old affiliate the Confederate flag with racism.

America’s youngest adults say with certainty that the flag represents racism over heritage. About half (51%) of adults between 18 to 24 say the flag represents racism, and a plurality of those (46%) in their late-20s and early-30s choose racism over heritage. Fewer than one in five adults (16%) between 18 and 24 believe the Confederate flag is a sign of heritage.

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White Americans split on the Confederate flag’s meaning

White Americans appear more conflicted about the meaning of the Confederate flag than other racial groups, though results vary based on level of education.

Among white Americans with a two-year college degree, four-year college degree, or postgraduate degree, the Confederate flag is more representative of racism (45%) than heritage (36%). But for white Americans who did not complete high school or did not get an education beyond high school, the reverse is true: 49 percent believe the Confederate flag represents heritage, and about a quarter (24%) say it represents racism.

That’s a divide simply not mirrored in other racial groups when segmented by higher education. About three-fourths (73%) of Black Americans with a degree say the flag most represents racism. Among Black Americans who were not educated beyond high school, 61 percent say it represents racism.

A plurality of Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, regardless of education-split, also say it represents racism over heritage.

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Overall, those living in rural communities (47%) are more likely than those in cities (26%), suburbs (33%), and towns (38%) to say the flag represents heritage over racism.

That number grows to a strong majority (57%) for white Americans without a college education who also live in a rural community. A plurality of college-educated white Americans who live in rural communities says the Confederate flag represents (48%) heritage over racism (33%).

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Tell your own story with data from YouGov. Contact uspress@yougov.com for more about our datasets and data products.

Methodology: Total weighted sample size was 34,598 US Adults aged 18+. Participants were asked, “What do you believe the Confederate flag MOST represents?” Response options were: Heritage, Racism, Neither of these, or Don’t know.” The survey was conducted December 6 - 9, 2019. The responding sample is weighted to provide a representative sample of the United States.

There were 1919 people from New England, 3975 from the Middle Atlantic, 4117 from the East North Central, 2387 from the West North Central, 7206 from the South Atlantic, 2001 from the East South Central, 3933 from the West South Central, 3146 from the Mountain division, and 5914 from the Pacific. There were 519 people from Alabama, 307 people from Arkansas, 1952 people from Florida, 799 people from Georgia, 257 people from Louisiana, 163 people from Mississippi, 1210 people from North Carolina, 408 people from South Carolina, 746 people from Tennessee, 1202 people from Virginia, and 2710 people from Texas. The sample is weighted to provide a representative sample of the United States.

Image: Getty

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