What you think about removing Confederate statues has less to do with your opinions about race and more with how you perceive the motivation behind removing them in the first place.
Jim Penniman-Morin, who majored in military history at West Point before serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew up seeing Robert E. Lee as a hero. Now, the ex-Army officer sees Confederal markers, such as military bases named after Confederate leaders, as disrespectful to the troops.
“It’s cruel to send an African-American teenager off to war from a base named for a person celebrated because of their disdain for racial equality,” he said. “No amount of nostalgia is worth causing a young soldier to feel unwelcome because of their skin color.”
Spurred by Charlottesville’s plans to remove a statue of Lee, the bloody Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 caused cities and schools all over the country to take a fresh look at whether Confederate history required public monuments. At the time, Americans leaned towards keeping them up, with 52% in favor of letting statues of Confederate leaders remain standing, twice as many as favored taking them down.
Now, many Americans, like Morin, have changed their minds after seeing George Floyd’s killing because the protests are not just one city at a time - it’s in almost all of them all at once. We all have access to the video of George Floyd’s killing as well as hundreds of incidents of police brutality. And now only 44% of us support keeping Confederate monuments against a growing 32% who want to take ‘em down. To see a net 14% swing in only three years on a subject that ended more than a century and half ago is, well, monumental.
Before we can understand why people are changing their minds, we have to look into the brain. When you break Confederate symbols down to their component parts, you see that a flag is just a dyed piece of cloth and a statue is simply a hunk of metal melted down to form a shape.
People care so much because that material is infused with meaning. From birth, our brain spends its time putting information into buckets. It’s how you can tell that big thing with four wheels in your driveway is a car or a truck. At the same time, and without our conscious awareness, culture encourages us to impose meaning, values and virtues on the objects we see, which is why you might think people who have a 2020 Ferrari have money or status and people with a 2001 Toyota have less.
Confederate monuments have a culturally significant meaning that signals virtue. For many, a statue of Robert E. Lee is a signal of preserving American history and local tradition, but for the growing majority of Americans, that same statue has evolved to symbolize oppression.
Likewise, the act of removing historical monuments sends a signal that is equally open to interpretation. When NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, some saw the declaration as an act of sincerity, others saw corporate bandwagoning.
Science suggests the way we perceive the motives behind removing or banning Confederate markers may determine how accepting we are of that change. If you think the motivation of those who call for removing statues, renaming military bases, or banning the Confederate flags comes from a sincere place, you’re more likely to be open to those moves. If you interpret them as politically or commercially intentioned, you’re more likely to disagree.
“If people think that the removal of flags and statues is out of political correctness or to garner votes for their side, then people are going to be less likely to support social change. But if people realize that these acts are not just lip service and that there’s an authentic concern behind them, then positive social change is likely to transpire” said Dr. Emile Bruneau, who directs the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
That’s what changed Morin’s mind. His brother-in-law, who teaches high school in Jacksonville, shared with Morin the feelings of Black students who drove by Confederate monuments every day to schools named for Confederate leaders. Those students got the message. Finally, Morin did, too.
“Those students were indeed receiving the message those symbols were always meant to convey,” said Morin, “and that’s not fair to them.”
Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.