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
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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.

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