The Science of Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Matters

There’s evidence to suggest that merely seeing the Confederate flag makes a person act slightly more racist.

Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
Brian Resnick
July 10, 2015, 4:58 a.m.

In a phys­ic­al sense, flags are just pat­terns of colored cloth: simple, geo­met­ric con­fig­ur­a­tions that fly in the wind. But in a psy­cho­lo­gic­al sense, they are much, much more than that.

A flag is a sym­bol of a group iden­tity. It is something we can own and dis­play, as to tell oth­ers, “This is a part of who I am.” The sym­bols on a flag in­stantly con­jure a people’s his­tory and rep­res­ent their ideas. We value those sym­bols greatly, be­cause we value ourselves.

For many, the sym­bol of the Con­fed­er­ate flag stands for the leg­acy of black op­pres­sion in the South, a re­mind­er of the worst chapters in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

When South Car­o­lina Gov­ernor Nikki Haley signed a bill Thursday to re­move the Con­fed­er­ate battle flag from the grounds of the state­house, the move was more than sym­bol­ic. Flags hold a psych­ic power over people. When we see them, the ideas and groups they rep­res­ent make a mark on our minds and can change our be­ha­vi­or.

When the flag near the South Car­o­lina Le­gis­lature is taken down Fri­day, that power will be re­moved with it.

This idea was put to the test in a 2008 ex­per­i­ment that co­in­cided with the pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. The ques­tion: Would ex­pos­ure to the Con­fed­er­ate flag make people less will­ing to vote for Barack Obama?

It did. “White par­ti­cipants ex­posed to the Con­fed­er­ate flag ex­pressed lowered will­ing­ness to vote for Barack Obama re­l­at­ive to con­trol par­ti­cipants,” the study con­cluded. It only took a 15 mil­li­second flash of the battle flag on screen to nudge people in this dir­ec­tion (a con­trol group did not see the flag).

It isn’t the case that the im­age of the flag takes open-minded people and turns them in­to blind-hat­ing ra­cists. The ef­fects are subtler than that, ac­tiv­at­ing the im­pli­cit ste­reo­types against black people that most people har­bor.

“We ar­gue that the con­cepts as­so­ci­ated with the Con­fed­er­ate flag, such as ra­cist be­ha­vi­or and neg­at­iv­ity to­ward blacks, be­come ac­cess­ible in people’s minds when they are ex­posed to the flag,” the study’s au­thors write.

When thoughts are more eas­ily ac­cessed, they are then more likely to in­flu­ence our be­ha­vi­or. “These little con­tex­tu­al cues may shift people’s thoughts in a way that they in­ter­pret something more in line with what that sym­bol stands for,” Markus Kem­mel­mei­er, a so­cial psy­cho­lo­gist at the Uni­versity of Nevada who has stud­ied the in­flu­ence flags have on thoughts, ex­plains.

The psy­cho­lo­gic­al power of the flag stretches bey­ond the eval­u­ation of politi­cians. It may even in­flu­ence every­day in­ter­ac­tions.

The au­thors of the Obama study ran the ex­per­i­ment a second time, but in­stead of ask­ing people to judge politi­cians, they asked par­ti­cipants to judge a hy­po­thet­ic­al black man named Robert who re­fused to pay rent to his land­lord un­til the land­lord con­duc­ted re­pairs. In this ex­per­i­ment, half the par­ti­cipants came across a folder with a small Con­fed­er­ate flag stick­er on it; the re­search­ers told them someone must have ac­ci­dent­ally left it in the room.

When par­ti­cipants were in a room with a Con­fed­er­ate flag, they rated Robert more neg­at­ively when asked about how kind Robert was, how ag­gress­ive he was, how selfish, and so on.

(Ex­pos­ure to the Amer­ic­an flag changes people too. Kem­mel­mei­er is the coau­thor of a 2008 pa­per that found that sit­ting in a room where an Amer­ic­an flag is hanging in­creases a sense of na­tion­al­ism.)

Let’s ex­tra­pol­ate the find­ings of the pre­vi­ous study in­to the real world. When a white per­son sees the Con­fed­er­ate battle flag near the South Car­o­lina State­house, it’s pos­sible that their next in­ter­ac­tion with, or judg­ment to­ward, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an will be slightly more neg­at­ive. Per­haps they’ll go a little ex­tra out of their way to avoid walk­ing near a black man on the side­walk. Or maybe they’ll be more hes­it­ant when a black man ap­proaches to ask for dir­ec­tions.

“What hap­pens when we ob­serve these subtle acts of ra­cial bi­as?” ask re­search­ers from Har­vard, Prin­ceton, and the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) in a new pa­per. The an­swer, in short, is that we be­come slightly more biased ourselves. Acts of ra­cism may be con­ta­gious.

“Ra­cial bi­as can be tox­ic,” the au­thors write. “Merely ob­serving a biased per­son ex­press subtle neg­at­iv­ity to­ward a black per­son may be enough to shift our own ra­cial bi­as.” Their cur­rent work is based of a body of re­search sug­gest­ing that be­ha­vi­ors and emo­tions can be con­ta­gions: We tend to act more dis­hon­est around dis­hon­est people, hap­pi­er around happy people, etc.

In their ex­per­i­ment, par­ti­cipants were either shown a video of a white per­son treat­ing a black per­son fairly, or a video of a white per­son ex­hib­it­ing subtle ra­cist ges­tures (not main­tain­ing eye con­tact, ex­hib­it­ing hes­it­ant body lan­guage). After watch­ing the videos where the black per­son was treated less fairly, par­ti­cipants also in­dic­ated they would be less in­clined to make friends with the black per­son de­pic­ted in the video, and they rated hy­po­thet­ic­al black men more neg­at­ively.

It’s pos­sible, then, that the re­mov­al of Con­fed­er­ate flags can have a mul­ti­pli­er ef­fect, re­mov­ing a ra­cial-bi­as in­stig­at­or that may propag­ate it­self in the form of thou­sands of mi­cro-ag­gress­ive ra­cist acts.

Kem­mel­mei­er says those who see the Con­fed­er­ate flag as a sym­bol of South­ern her­it­age are bound to feel per­son­ally at­tacked when the flag is re­moved. “When that sym­bol is taken down, to many it feels like an at­tack of a whole way of life,” he says.

But yet he senses a shift in the way people per­ceive the sym­bol of the flag. There have al­ways been du­el­ing in­ter­pret­a­tions: that the flag either stands for her­it­age, or that it stands for hate. When the Char­le­ston church shoot­er proudly wore the sym­bols of the Con­fed­er­acy as sym­bols of hate, it be­came harder to deny that in­ter­pret­a­tion. “The dual mean­ing that could co­ex­ist was no longer pos­sible,” he says.

What We're Following See More »
Mississippi Governor Signs Bill to Ban Abortions After 15 Weeks
32 minutes ago
China Tariffs May Be Even Bigger Than Originally Proposed
38 minutes ago

"President Trump is preparing to impose a package of $60 billion in annual tariffs against China, following through on a long-time threat that he says will punish China for intellectual property infringement and create more American jobs. The tariff package, which Trump plans to unveil by Friday, was confirmed by four senior administration officials. Senior aides had presented Trump with a $30 billion tariff package that would apply to a range of products, but Trump directed them to roughly double the scope of the new trade levies."

Trump Attorneys Have Offered Documents to Mueller’s Team
52 minutes ago

"President Trump’s attorneys have provided the special counsel’s office with written descriptions that chronicle key moments under investigation in hopes of curtailing the scope of a presidential interview, according to two people familiar with the situation. Trump’s legal team recently shared the documents in an effort to limit any session between the president and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to a few select topics" on order to "minimize his exposure. ... The lawyers are worried that Trump, who has a penchant for making erroneous claims, would be vulnerable in an hours-long interview."

SCOTUS Rejects Last-Ditch Challenge to Pennsylvania Map
2 hours ago
Investigative Documentary Exposes Cambridge Analytica
2 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.