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What the debate around Confederate statues says about race and party

Looking at what the statues mean, and who favors their removal.

A Confederate statue stands outside a Hillsborough County building, in Tampa, FL. County Commissioners are debating removing the statue. Chris O'Meara / AP Photo

The bevy of monuments throughout the US that pay homage to the sons and daughters of the Confederacy do much more than celebrate the figures cast in bronze. They provide an ominous reminder that their surrounding space is proprietary to the ideology of white supremacy and racial oppression that led to the Confederate states’ secession from the Union. These statues serve as reminders that even though the Civil War ended in the Confederacy’s defeat, the societal norms that governed antebellum (and later Jim Crow) race relations still prevail.

In an effort to reclaim these spaces, civil rights activists have long pursued the removal of Confederate statues and monuments from public areas, but with relatively little success. They have been met with opposition from those who argue that Confederate symbols serve as sources of Southern heritage, devoid of any racial connotation. Take, for instance, a recent Economist/YouGov poll finding that a majority of Americans do not recognize Confederate statues as racist. When asked their views of statues of Confederate war heroes, 54 percent of respondents believed they were symbols of Southern pride, compared to just 26 percent of those who believed they were symbols of racism.

But as I discuss in my recent book, ideas and rhetoric surrounding the notion of Southern pride and heritage are not so easily disentangled from race. It was under the guise of “states’ rights” that the South sought to preserve institutionalized segregation post-slavery and throughout the civil rights movement. Federally enforced desegregation became such a sticking point in the South — which at the time was dominated by the Democratic Party — that it eventually led to the demise of the New Deal coalition.

Not surprisingly, then, one of the strongest predictors of support for Confederate symbol removal is race. For example, 49 percent of black people polled support removing the statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, compared to only 25 percent of white people. Interestingly, 40 percent of black people were ambivalent about the statue removal — signaling a complexity of this issue for many. While there is no doubt that black people disagree with the glorification of Confederate figures as heroes, there is the desire to preserve these monuments as reminders of the US’s stained history of state-sanctioned racial violence — a past that has yet to be reconciled.

There are also strong partisan divisions in support for the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces. Democrats were nearly five times more likely than Republicans (52 percent, compared to 11 percent) to approve of removing the Lee statue. Given the strong association between race and party identification, particularly the partisan realignment that occurred in the 1960s, this is also not surprising.

But more recently, race and partisanship have once again intersected with the incorporation of a white nationalist sentiment in much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, leading to his endorsement by groups like the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In Trump’s failure to condemn the violent behavior of these white supremacist groups during his presidency, many Democrats link their opposition to preserving Confederate symbols in public spaces to an overall condemnation of the Trump administration. Essentially, the statue removal is not only seen by Democrats, particularly those in Congress, as reclaiming the history of America’s fight against slavery and racial oppression but a partisan indictment on Trump’s policies on immigration and race relations.

Trump’s response to the Confederate monument removals suggests that racialized partisan divisions will not soon be mended. In a tweet, he stated: “Sad to see the history and culture and our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” But you can’t erase a history that’s never fully and honestly been told. The Confederate States of America was founded for the purpose of maintaining white supremacy and chattel slavery. Post-institutionalized slavery, the US saw a spike in the dedication of monuments and statues commemorating the Confederacy during Jim Crow, a period when the South sought to regain control over the racial hierarchy disrupted by Reconstruction.

The racial upheavals of the civil rights movement also yielded a significant uptick in the number of Confederate monuments erected. Thus, from its inception, the Confederacy and its symbols have and continue to signify a desired racial social order by those who glorify them. Denying this is to deny America’s true history.

Tasha Philpot is an associate professor in the department of government at the University of Texas Austin, specializing in American politics with an emphasis on American race relations and party politics.