Jason MIczek / Reuters

Taking down the Confederate flag isn’t enough

Survey data reveal that whites in Confederate states express more racist attitudes than whites elsewhere

June 23, 2015 3:30PM ET

In the wake of the June 17 mass shooting by Dylann Storm Roof in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, the nation has debated the pervasive influence of racism throughout American society. In addition, many politicians and commentators have called attention to the Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, and demanded that it be removed. Governor Nikki Haley recently called for the flag to be removed from the state capitol.  

While such a step would be significant, it would not erase the underlying reality: Non-Hispanic whites living in formerly Confederate states still hold racist views at a higher rate than the rest of the nation.

In a 2013 study, legal scholars Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer developed a measure to examine racial stereotyping across states by using responses to large surveys that asked respondents to rate how hard-working or intelligent black people are. They find that South Carolina ranked third highest in terms of non-black people expressing anti-black stereotyping and fourth in terms of white people expressing such sentiments. Indeed, using their metric of anti-black stereotyping, five formerly Confederate states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana) rank in the top 10 states for racist whites, while Florida and Texas are in the top 15.

These results are unsurprising: Scholars find that racial animosity can linger for centuries. More recently, political scientists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen have found that, “Whites who currently live in Southern counties that had high shares of slaves in 1860 are more likely to identify as a Republican, oppose affirmative action, and express racial resentment and colder feelings toward blacks.”

These results are supported by other studies in other countries. For instance, research suggests that the slave trade still affects levels of trust in African countries that were heavily targeted by slave traders. There are similar findings for anti-Semitism: Towns and cities with a higher rate of pogroms during the Black death had higher Nazi vote shares in the 1928 election, higher deportation rates of Jews after 1933 and more synagogues destroyed during Kristallnacht.

Using the American National Election Studies 2012 survey, I examined three areas of racial opinion. The first examines structural race issues through questions that ask respondents whether they agree or disagree with these statements:

Slavery: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”

Work: “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

Dessert: “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.”

Effort: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Discrimination: “How much discrimination do black people face?”

The first and second questions, which measure racial resentment, were used by Acharya et al.

The second area concerns racial stereotyping. The associated questions ask respondents to say whether they believe that black people are “hard-working” or “lazy,” “intelligent” or “unintelligent” and whether they have “too much influence” or “too little influence” in politics. And finally, I also look at attitudes towards solutions, such as whether respondents support government aid to blacks or think that the government should ensure fair jobs for blacks. My analysis focuses only on non-Hispanic whites in Confederate and non-Confederate states. 

The former Confederacy’s race problem shows no sign of going away.

On structural issues, I find large and consistent differences between whites living in formerly Confederate and non-Confederate states, with the largest gap being a 15.4 point difference in whether blacks could be just as well off as whites if they tried harder. Across all structural issues, there is a 10.5 point difference on structural racial issues.

Whites living in Confederate and non-Confederate states differ on structural race issues

Source: ANES, 2012
Note: Categories reflect the following statements:
Slavery: Slavery has little effect on blacks today.
Work: Blacks should work their way up without favors.
Dessert: Blacks have not gotten less than they deserve.
Effort: If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.
Discrimination: There is little or no discrimination against blacks.

Moving on to racial stereotyping leads to equally disturbing results. A bit more than 40 percent of white people in formerly Confederate states say that black people are lazy, and 28 percent say that black people are unintelligent (compared with 30 percent and 19 percent, respectively, of whites in non-Confederate states). In addition, almost a third of whites from formerly Confederate states say that black people have “too much influence over politics.”

This is worrying because numerous studies have established a link between black political power and white racial animus. Most recently, political scientist Richard Fording and Jon Cotter of the Federal Bureau of Investigation find that “increases in white hate group activity over the last two decades may have been at least partially fueled by white racists who have chosen unconventional politics to combat the enfranchisement of black voters and the election of blacks to office.” On the day of Barack Obama’s election, Fording and Cotter note, “the most popular racist website on the internet – Stormfront – received so many hits that it had to temporarily shut down.”

Whites living in Confederate and non-Confederate states also differ on racial stereotyping

Source: ANES, 2012

Finally, whites in the former Confederacy are strongly opposed to government action to remedy racial inequality. This likely stems from whites rejecting structural narratives for racial inequality, and while it is exacerbated in the former Confederacy is pervasive across the nation. 

Whites in former Confederacy states strongly oppose government action to remedy racial inequality

Source: ANES, 2012

The former Confederacy’s race problem shows no sign of going away. As I’ve noted before, age doesn’t influence racial attitudes. Nearly 40 percent of whites under 34 years old living in formerly Confederate states say that blacks are lazy — a statistic indistinguishable from those over 65. In addition, 30 percent of young whites in former Confederate states say black people are “unintelligent,” a statistically indistinguishable 3 points lower than those over 65. In addition, while 26 percent of old whites say that black people have too much influence over politics, 30 percent of young whites do. These data points suggest that southern states need to do far more than take down their Confederate flags. And while whites that are not in the former Confederacy are less likely to endorse racial stereotypes, they are by no means free of racist attitudes. America needs to begin rooting out racism, or else it will poison our democracy for centuries. But this much is clear: Racism will not simply fade away — it must be eliminated. 

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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