TRENDS: Economic Interests Cause Elected Officials to Liberalize Their Racial Attitudes

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 511 –525
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919899725
In June 2015, a shooter in Charleston, South Carolina,
killed nine people in a racially motivated attack on a
church, creating an impetus to remove the Confederate flag
from the state capitol grounds. After contentious legislative
debate, Republican governor Nikki Haley signed a bill
bringing the flag down. In August 2017, white nationalists
rallied in support of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville,
Virginia, resulting in one counter-protester being killed and
others being injured. Continued social activism against
Confederate symbols placed the issue of racially intolerant
symbols on the agenda for many U.S. elected officials who
may have preferred to avoid it.
The Confederate flag is nevertheless popular among
many white voters in the U.S. South and opposition to the
flag has often broken down on racial lines (e.g., Clark
1997; Huffmon, Knotts, and McKee 2017–2018; Husser
2017; Self 2014; Sinclair-Chapman 2018). Public officials
face a choice between alienating constituents who favor
Confederate symbols or those who consider them racially
insensitive. In many jurisdictions, Confederate flags are
displayed on public property. U.S. elected officials are
grappling with decisions to keep or remove Confederate
flags and symbols. For instance, in Mississippi, some
jurisdictions have refused to display the state flag, whose
canton is the Confederate battle flag (Bedillion 2016). In
other localities, officials reaffirmed their support for the
public display of the Confederate flag (Ristau 2017).
While the issue of removal of the Confederate flag
appears to be a racial or cultural issue, the decision to
remove these controversial symbols can also be moti-
vated by economics. Self-interested elected officials have
an incentive to remove controversial symbols and change
symbolic laws to project a welcoming environment to
outside businesses who may be interested in relocating to
their constituencies, and self-interested motivations by
public officials make them particularly susceptible to
economic arguments that could affect their constituents.
Furthermore, advocacy groups have conducted economic
boycotts of localities displaying Confederate images, and
these boycotts have the potential to drive away business
investments and conference attendance. When Governor
Nikki Haley signed the law removing the Confederate
flag from the capitol grounds in South Carolina, the
899725PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919899725Political Research QuarterlyGrose and Peterson
1University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA
2Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, USA
Corresponding Author:
Christian R. Grose, University of Southern California, Los Angeles,
CA 90089, USA.
TRENDS: Economic Interests Cause
Elected Officials to Liberalize Their
Racial Attitudes
Christian R. Grose1 and Jordan Carr Peterson2
Do attitudes of elected officials toward racial issues change when the issues are portrayed as economic? Traditionally,
scholars have presented Confederate symbols as primarily a racial issue: elites supporting their eradication from public
life tend to emphasize the association of Confederate symbols with slavery and institutionalized racism, while those
elected officials who oppose the removal of Confederate symbols often cite the heritage of white southerners. In
addition to these racial explanations, we argue that there is an economic component underlying support for removal
of Confederate symbols among political elites. Racial issues can also be economic issues, and framing a racial issue as
an economic issue can change elite attitudes. In the case of removal of Confederate symbols, the presence of such
imagery is considered harmful to business. Two survey experiments of elected officials in eleven U.S. southern states
show that framing the decision to remove Confederate symbols as good for business causes those elected officials to
favor removing the Confederate flag from public spaces. Elected officials can be susceptible to framing, just like regular
American politics, race, ethnicity, and politics, experiments, political elites, framing, symbolic representation, policy

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