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A Time of Monumental Change: Public Opinion on the Removal of Confederate Symbols

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School
June 24, 2020 

In recent weeks, we’ve watched as protesters across the nation make calls for justice, for an equitable future and for the removal of Confederate monuments and other symbols of slavery and oppression. In Richmond, Virginia, which was once the capital of the Confederacy, protesters have taken action into their own hands as they pull down statues and monuments; this has included a statue of Jefferson Davis, The Richmond Howitzers Monument and a statue of Christopher Columbus. In addition, Governor Ralph Northam recently called for a statue of Robert E. Lee, located on the city’s historic Monument Avenue, to be removed.

Unhappy with the governor’s call, six Monument Avenue resident have sued to stop the removal. In response, Northam’s spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky stated that, “Governor Northam is committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia’s capital city. We’re confident in his authority to do so, and look forward to winning in court.” The next week, the lawsuit was withdrawn. Even the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, which in the past hesitated to have the monuments removed, now supports removal. In a recent statement, the Society’s board of directors said, “For too long, we have overlooked the inherent racism of these monuments, and for too long we have allowed the grandeur of the architecture to blind us to the insult of glorifying men for their roles in fighting to perpetuate the inhumanity of slavery.”

Though removal of the monuments is at the forefront of today’s news, it is not a new issue. In Richmond, discussions about the future of the monuments have been ongoing, with some wanting them to stay as they are, some wanting them to stay with added context or to be relocated to a museum, and some wanting them removed completely. During the winter of 2017– 2018, the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs asked the public’s opinion on the future of confederate monuments as part of the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll.

The poll, a representative sample of adult Virginians, was conducted via telephone (cell and landline) between December 8 and December 26, 2017 and had 788 participants.

Participants were asked, “Thinking about the monuments to Confederate figures in Virginia, which of the following courses of action do you favor? Leave them in place as they are, add context in the current location such as additional signage, relocate to a museum or remove all together.”

A plurality of 49% favored leaving Confederate statues in place as they are, while 46% favored some type of change. However, those favoring a change were far from united on the best course—23% of those surveyed favored moving the statues to museums, 13% favored adding context in the current location such as additional signage and 10% favored removing statues all together. For comparison, exit polls conducted by The Washington Post following Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election that offered only two response options showed 57% wanting monuments to stay in place and 39% favoring removal.

In the Commonwealth Poll, Republicans, at 75%, were far more likely to support monuments remaining as they are than were independents, at 49%, or Democrats at only 28%. Though not as pronounced as the partisan divide, white respondents (60%) were significantly more likely to want monuments left as they are compared to only 25% of minority respondents who said the same.

The poll also asked, “Would you be willing to pay more in taxes to pay for changes to or removal of monuments?” A large majority of the overall respondents (76%) were unwilling to pay for any changes to the monuments through increased taxes. Half of those who supported relocating monuments to museums (50%) and three-fourths of those who preferred adding context (75%) were unwilling to pay more in taxes in order to see changes made to Confederate monuments.

In contrast, 21% would have been willing to pay more in taxes to pay for changes or removal. Those most frequently willing to pay were the 10% who favored complete removal, with 63% of that small group expressing willingness to pay more in taxes. Younger, more educated and minority respondents were significantly more likely to be willing to pay more in taxes, though in no category was a majority willing to do so.

Though questions may still remain as to how the removal process could work and what would subsequently be done with the monuments, it seems that support for removing Confederate monuments is growing ever stronger. For too long, these monuments and other symbols of slavery, racism, and oppression have stood prominently across the nation. We not only have the chance to now change that, but also the responsibility to do so.


Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, our services include leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights, and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses, and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @CPPatVCU

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