We're arguing about the Confederate flag again. It's no surprise that this debate has come up a lot; it's been 150 years since the end of the Civil War, so there's been a lot of time for the arguments to accumulate. This time, people are protesting the flying of the Confederate flag outside South Carolina's Capitol building, in light of the murder of nine black parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week.
Folks on both sides of the debate offer many reasons for and against the flying of the flag. One that doesn't often come up enough: how the flag subconsciously affects people's behaviors. In 2010, Pacific Standard wrote about two experiments focusing on the psychological effects that result from looking at the Confederate flag. One experiment found that white study volunteers judged a fictional black character more harshly when they read about the character while sitting at a desk with a Confederate flag sticker. The other showed that white study volunteers were less likely to say they were willing to vote for Barack Obama, compared to white candidates like Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain, after being subliminally flashed images of the Confederate flag. Black study volunteers weren't similarly affected. In addition, the effect was specifically seen with race. As Tom Jacobs reported:
Exposure to the flag had no effect on their self-reported measures of liberalism or conservatism; this suggests the flag's psychic impact was on racial rather than ideological attitudes.
Whatever people say the flag means to them, it also has meanings that are beyond their control.