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There might be another solution for Silent Sam

Protesters topple Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC

A crowd of protesters pull down the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina Monday night, Aug. 20, 2018.
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A crowd of protesters pull down the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina Monday night, Aug. 20, 2018.

We live in politically polarized times, full of impasses that seem impossible to bridge. But sometimes the way political choices are framed can obscure opportunities to build consensus.

We think such opportunities exist as concerns one of the most divisive issues in southern politics: the preservation or removal of Confederate monuments. Opinions about Confederate monuments have become wrapped up in the politics of identity. Monument opponents see them as symbols of white supremacy. Proponents argue that removal is an effort to rewrite history or invalidate their ancestors’ memory. Both frames pit valued groups—racial, partisan, and perhaps others—against each other. Against this backdrop, public opinion support for defending Confederate monuments looks strong.

Our idea for how to sidestep these difficulties draws inspiration from a landmark speech that Mitch Landrieu—the former mayor of New Orleans—gave when his city removed three prominent statues of Confederate icons. Landrieu acknowledged that Confederate monuments have historical significance, thereby validating a central part of the conservative narrative about these issues.

But he then shifted focus. He challenged New Orleanians to consider whether, of all the things that encompass the city’s past and culture—Mardi Gras, the invention of jazz, multicultural food like jambalaya—Confederate symbols are what most merit recognition in places of honor. “If presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces. . . would these monuments be what we want the world to see?”

We tested whether Landrieu’s rhetorical tack might help bridge the divide over Confederate monuments. Specifically, we conducted an experiment involving Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on UNC’s campus that was torn down in August. The UNC administration will soon present a plan for where to place the statue going forward.

In October, with help from the Elon Poll, we conducted a survey of 383 N.C. residents that examined how public opinion about Silent Sam responds to a framing like Landrieu’s.

Half of the respondents were simply asked whether Silent Sam should be restored to its original location or not—essentially an up or down vote. We think this approach accentuates group conflict and frames the issue as zero-sum. When opinions are measured this way, support for Silent Sam is substantial: 53.7 percent of voters (and 66.8 percent of white voters) favor restoration. (We consider white voters separately because the overwhelming majority of non-whites oppose Silent Sam’s restoration, no matter how opinion is measured.)

The other half of respondents considered (following Landrieu’s framing) what statue would be best to occupy the location previously occupied by Silent Sam. Silent Sam itself was one of the alternatives, so respondents could still express that they favored restoration. But they had three additional choices as well: Dean Smith, the legendary UNC basketball coach; Annie Lowrie Alexander, the first female doctor licensed in the South; or a tribute to the 1st North Carolina Regiment, which served with distinction during the Revolutionary War. (We included this final option so respondents could preserve a military focus, but one with a less divisive legacy.)

When Silent Sam is presented alongside plausible alternatives, its appeal falls noticeably—and fails to reach the critical 50 percent threshold. Only 45.6 percent of voters (48.1 percent of white voters) favor restoration. The drop in support is especially pronounced among white Republicans (a 16 percentage point decline) and white independents (nearly a 27 point decline).

We conclude that support for Silent Sam is real—but soft. Our reframing includes no argument in favor of another statue, and no effort to challenge the sentiments—valid or not—that might dispose one to favor Silent Sam’s restoration. This is an example—as one of us put it in a recent book—of changing minds without changing hearts.

Looking beyond Silent Sam, we think our experiment points to broader possibilities. Although we live in a polarized time, political leaders might give themselves some cover and help move their constituents toward consensus if they challenge those who listen to consider what facets of our shared past most merit recognition in our places of public honor.

Timothy J. Ryan and Marc J. Hetherington are political scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill.