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Research Says Just Seeing the Confederate Flag Triggers Racism

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

The Confederate flag is probably the most racially divisive symbol in American history. Now research is showing how just being exposed to the flag widens the racial divide.

What most people today know simply as the Confederate flag is actually the battle flag under which Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia fought against the United States during the Civil War. Although it was never adopted as the official flag of the Confederacy, it has become the representative emblem of all that the Southern states that seceded from the Union stood for.

In more recent times, the Confederate flag has also been adopted by many who vehemently oppose equal citizenship for African Americans. Thus, it has been a rallying point for organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, White supremacist groups, and others who forthrightly proclaim their unwavering resistance to racial integration and equal rights for Black Americans.

Flag at United Confederate Veterans reunion in Marianna, Florida, 1927

Flag at United Confederate Veterans reunion in Marianna, Florida, 1927

A Symbol of Southern Pride?

Still, many of those who proudly fly the Confederate flag today insist that it represents their heritage as descendants of gallant soldiers who heroically fought in Confederate gray for what they believed in. They vehemently deny that their beloved banner has any associations with racist beliefs.

Others, however, including most African Americans, see the Confederate flag as representing only slavery, prejudice, oppression, and racism.

Are Negative Reactions to the Confederate Flag Just a Matter of Opinion?

Typically, those who support the public display of the Confederate flag insist that people who take offense at such displays are simply expressing what is nothing more than their opinion. But, flag supporters say, those who honor that banner have their own opinion, and have a free-speech right to express that opinion by continuing to fly the flag, even on public land and over government-owned facilities in states such as Mississippi (where the Confederate flag was embedded in the state flag) and South Carolina.

Who is right? Does the symbolism represented by the Confederate flag exist purely in the eye of the beholder? Or is there some objective basis for determining whether that banner does or does not represent racism at its worst? Recent scientific research is providing an answer to that question.

Research Shows That Just Seeing the Confederate Flag Triggers Racist Reactions

In 2008 a team of researchers, led by Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, conducted two separate experiments to determine how the Confederate flag impacts racial attitudes. According to Dr. Ehrlinger, the results, reported in the journal Political Psychology, indicate that exposure to the Confederate flag “may actually provoke discrimination—even among people who are low in prejudice.”

Study #1: The Confederate Flag Triggers Racial Bias in Voting

The first of the two studies conducted by Dr. Ehrlinger and her team took advantage of the fact that a Black man, Barack Obama, was a serious candidate for President of the United States in 2008.

In this experiment, the researchers employed 108 White and 22 Black college students as subjects. Each person was seated at a computer screen and exposed subliminally to one of two images. The images were shown on their screens twenty times in 15-millisecond bursts. With that brief exposure, the subjects would not be consciously aware of seeing the image.

Half the subject group saw an image that consisted of a neutral design of colored lines. The other half were exposed to an image of the Confederate flag.

The students were then given a list of presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Barack Obama, and were asked to rate which of the four they were most likely to vote for.

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Barack Obama campaigning in 2008

Barack Obama campaigning in 2008

The results of the experiment were stark.

White students who had been exposed to the Confederate flag were significantly less likely to choose Barack Obama than those who saw the neutral image.

— Research findings

The choices made by the Black students were not influenced by whether or not they had seen the Confederate flag. Nor were the preferences of students of either race regarding the White candidates affected by seeing the flag.

But White students who had been exposed to the Confederate flag were significantly less likely to choose Barack Obama than those who saw the neutral image.

The result was the same whether the students identified themselves as liberal or conservative, or whether the student was from the South or the North. Nor was there any difference based on what the research report called the “pre-existing racial attitudes” of the students.

Simply being subliminally exposed, below the level of conscious awareness, to the Confederate flag caused the White students who saw it to be much less likely to vote for a Black man as president.

Study #2: The Confederate Flag Causes a More Negative Evaluation of Black People

The second experiment was designed to determine whether exposure to the Confederate flag might influence the way Whites perceive Blacks.

In this study 116 White students were divided into two groups. Half were seated at desks where, they were told, someone from a previous unrelated study had left behind a folder on a corner of the desk. The folder had a sticker on it containing an image of the Confederate flag. The second group of students did not see the sticker. Then both groups were asked to read the story about “a young man named Robert who engaged in ambiguously negative and aggressive behavior.”

In the study, participants were given a picture of a Black man representing Robert.

In the study, participants were given a picture of a Black man representing Robert.

The story was accompanied by a picture of Robert, who was Black. The account said that Robert was refusing to pay his rent until his landlord painted his apartment. In another episode, Robert demanded that a store clerk refund money Robert had paid him.

After reading the story, the students were asked to assess Robert’s character, ranking him on the extent to which they considered him to be kind, aggressive, or selfish. They were then given a survey that aimed at measuring their general attitudes toward Black people.

As with the first study, the results of this experiment were revealing. The students who were exposed to the folders with the Confederate flag stickers on them were significantly more negative in their rating of Robert than those who did not see the flag. Moreover, the effect of seeing the flag was the same whether the respondent’s pre-existing attitude toward Black people was positive or negative.

The conclusion of the researchers when they evaluated the results of the two experiments was that:

“The automatic effects of Confederate flag exposure might lead even people low in prejudice to evaluate President Obama and other Black targets in a more negative light.”

The research report goes on to say:

Whether or not the Confederate flag includes other nonracist meanings, exposure to this flag evokes responses that are prejudicial.

— Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger

Additional Research Confirms and Extends Dr. Ehrlinger’S Conclusions

In a 2010 master's thesis that cites and builds on Dr. Ehrlinger’s work, Florida State student Corey Columb reports that the research

“demonstrates that exposure to the Confederate flag not only affects judgments, but behaviors such as retaliatory aggression. . . . exposure to the Confederate flag has a negative impact on judgments and behavior toward Black people.”

The Importance of These Research Findings

The research indicates that there are real-world, negative consequences to the display of the Confederate flag. Just by seeing that flag, many White Americans will be unconsciously influenced toward negative evaluations of Black people and may even be stimulated to behave more aggressively toward them.

Yet most Americans are entirely unaware of the effect the display of the Confederate flag may have on their own attitudes and those of others, and they think of it as a more neutral or even positive symbol than the evidence shows it to be.

Surveys indicate that many Americans have been persuaded by advocates of the flag who claim it represents “heritage, not hate.” For example, a YouGov poll, conducted in March of 2015, indicates that at that time less than a third of respondents considered the Confederate flag to be a symbol of racism:

YouGov poll conducted March 24–26, 2015

The Confederate flag representsTotalWhiteBlack

Southern Pride












Not sure




The impact of such opinions is that until recently there has been little political support among the majority of citizens in the United States for removing the Confederate flag from display in public spaces.

However, in the aftermath of the racially motivated murders of nine African Americans during a Bible Study at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanual AME Church in June of 2015, there was a major increase in public pressure to remove the Confederate flag from display on publicly owned land. Even retailers, such as Walmart and Amazon, pledged to no longer sell Confederate paraphernalia. Clearly, many Americans are beginning to realize that, however sincere supporters of the flag may be in their protestations that it is a symbol of pride and heritage rather than of racial hatred, the fact is that this banner is inextricably linked, in the minds of most who see it, with prejudice and racism.

It is not yet clear whether there has been a real and permanent shift in attitudes about the flag, or if the tide running against it will ebb once the Charleston murders recede in public memory. The knowledge that the negative impact of the Confederate flag on African Americans and on race relations is not just a matter of opinion, but of hard, scientific fact, may help to cement that change.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Ronald E Franklin

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