New Thought on ‘the Flag’ – and a New Lyric Line for ‘Dixie’

State of the First Amendment 2015

Amid all the discussion and debate over public display of the Confederate flag, where do Americans actually agree or disagree?

A new survey shows that a majority of all Americans agree with banning the Confederate battle flag from license plates, public buildings and store shelves.

But a majority of white and Hispanic respondents, asked what they think when they see the contested flag, don’t identify it as a symbol of racial bias against African Americans, even though an overwhelming number of African  Americans do.

The national poll was conducted Friday through Sunday by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, as part of its annual survey of American attitudes about our core freedoms and related issues. The results of the latest survey — with 1,050 adult respondents, conducted online and with a margin of error of 3 percent — shows:

  • Overall, 56 percent  of respondents agreed that “government should be able to deny issuing license plates to a group that wants to display a Confederate flag on the plates,” with 44 percent disagreeing.

The response is a reversal of findings from the Institute’s national “State of the First Amendment” telephone sampling done in mid-May — before the mass killings in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist who openly displayed the flag. Then, just 35 percent overall agreed that government should have such authority. White respondents are now about evenly split on the issue, consistently supported by minority respondents in both surveys.

  • Asked if “government should ban the display of the Confederate flag on any publicly funded structure or flagpole,” 52 percent of whites support taking down the flag, while 85 percent of African Americans and 69 percent of Hispanics support it.
  • Asked if “private companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon were right to say recently that they will stop selling merchandise on which the Confederate flag is displayed,” 57 percent of whites support removing flag products, as do 94 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Hispanics.
  • But the racial groups differed greatly when asked to select between three options concerning perceptions about the Confederate flag.  Just 18 percent of whites and 31 percent of Hispanics saw it as a symbol of “racial prejudice against African Americans or others,” compared with 72 percent for African Americans.

The survey found 43 percent of white respondents, 47 percent of Hispanics and just 14 percent of African Americans said they view the flag as symbolic of Confederate soldiers who fought or perished in the Civil War.

And 40 percent of whites, 21 percent of Hispanics and just 14 percent of African Americans said they think of the flag as “a symbol of Southern heritage and culture overall.”

What to think of these survey answers?

For me — I am white — the survey results help explain how this flag, a symbol that I associate more with the forces of bigotry and hate than ancestry and heritage, could survive to remain  a state symbol in so many places 150 years after the end of the Civil War:  Many people who look like me just didn’t see it “that way.”

What I take away from the survey findings also is this:  Many more people who look like me “get it” now — and perhaps, finally.

How else to explain what clearly is a massive public shift — from Southern legislatures and governments to national retailers — in favor of taking the flag down?

Just a short time ago, as history measures things, states like South Carolina were raising the flag as a symbol of resistance to federally mandated integration or people were displaying it on t-shirts and “Dukes of Hazzard” cars as a salute to a Rebel culture that was part “Give ’em hell” and — for some, sending a message to their Northern cousins: “Go to hell.”

For me, the results say that — at long last — the majority is willing to say to a sizable minority: “Even if it isn’t how I see it, I understand that it offends you for reasons I can support, so let’s take it down.”

And let’s not forget that the group that said it represented for them “Southern culture” may well have been thinking — and rejecting — the awful historical legacy of slavery, not Southern honor or independence.

In a way, it’s the long-awaited companion to the now-widespread recognition that racial jokes, blackface performances and racial slurs — which also didn’t apply to people who look like me — no longer find acceptance among a majority of all Americans.

Ardent supporters of the Confederate battle flag still may chose to focus on those who responded with answers other than “racial bias.”  But that misses the point of the survey responses taken as a whole:  “Take it down” does not mean “remove it from memory.”  Rather, it would seem, the message is take it down as a mantra of hatred and allow it to remain as a marker in history.

I’ll have one more personal take-away from this survey, which I choose to put to song. The poll — and the new social tsunami of the last week and more — puts new meaning to the lyric line in an old tune that begins “Look away, look away, look away …”  

For me, that line in that song now goes “… and look ahead, Dixie Land.”

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of its First Amendment Center. He can be contacted at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac

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