Long-standing discontent with memorialiations of Texans' roles in the Civil War on the grounds of the Texas Capitol resurfaced recently as Civil War memorials and their racist associations have become a subject of national discussion, activism, and, in some places, impromptu political action. On July 16, a group of Black legislative chiefs of staff sent a letter to the Democratic caucuses in both chambers asking those members to “use your legislative powers and office to enact meaningful change and reform” to address institutional racism in the state. The letter also included a call to “take immediate action in removing all Confederate monuments and commemorations from the Texas State Capitol grounds.” Shortly thereafter, on July 20, a group of Democratic legislators in both chambers sent their own letter to the administration committees of the House and Senate calling for the removal of seven Confederate memorials from the Capitol grounds.
The discussion of what to do with these monuments reemerges in a context much changed from the last sustained policy engagement with this issue, which ended in January 2019 with the State Preservation Board ordering the removal of a plaque memorializing “the children of the confederacy creed” from the Capitol building. The discussion of the monuments was never too deeply submerged after the national rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and, later, the late-night removal of statues of Confederate figures and President Woodrow Wilson from the UT Austin campus. The graphic evidence of the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police and the protests that followed, which arrived on the Capitol grounds during May protests in Austin and led Governor Greg Abbott to defend the Capitol with state troopers and the National Guard for weeks after, have radically changed the context and the substance of the discussion of racism, at least for now. Shifts in Texans’ attitudes about what to do with public monuments to the confederacy count among these many contextual changes.
University of Texas polling captured these attitudes first in October 2017 – after the violent clashes between defenders of a public statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesburg, VA and anti-racism protesters, the removal of the UT monuments, and the same year as the discussion of the plaque in the Capitol was getting underway. That poll used the following question to probe Texans’ views:
Which of the following is closest to your opinion regarding Confederate statues and monuments on public property?
- They should be removed from public view
- They should be moved to a museum or other site where they can be presented in historical context
- They should remain where they are with historical context provided
- They should remain where they are unchanged
- Don’t know/No opinion
Almost three years later, a June 2020 poll, conducted amidst the more widespread wave of national anti-racism protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, included the same question.
Overall, the pair of polls captured a general shift away from support for leaving these statues unaltered on public property. Yet within this overall pattern of change suggesting more support for moving the monuments, the makings of significant conflict remain in evidence. There are important differences among different social groups that form along partisan, generational, and racial lines — and significant pockets of opposition seemingly colored by racial animus and a rejection of the otherwise growing recognition of the history and legacy of racism in the U.S. — and in Texas. We examine these findings in detail below, with some discussion following. To summarize: Changes in Texas attitudes have been significant, but the group patterns within these changes suggest that visitors shouldn’t expect to see any empty pedestals or blank wall spaces next time they are allowed to tour the Capitol grounds.
Overall, Texas attitudes have shifted between 2017 and 2020. A majority of Texans, 52%, now believe that Confederate statues should be removed from public property, compared with only 38% who felt the same in October 2017 UT/Texas Tribune polling — 20% said they should be removed completely, 32% said that they should be moved to a museum. Similarly, the share who said that the statues should remain in place declined from 56% in 2017 to 43% today — with 20% preferring that they remain in place unchanged, and 23% preferring that they remain in place provided the addition of historical context. The share that said Confederate monuments should remain where they are without any changes decreased from 34% to 20%, while those that said that they should be removed from public view entirely (rather than placed in museums or other context) increased from 8% to 20%.
|Moved to museum||32%|
|Remain with historical context||23%|
|Don't know/No opinion||5%|
|Removed from view||8%|
|Moved to museum||30%|
|Remain, add context||22%|
|Remain as is, unchanged||34%|
Between 2017-2020, many groups across the electorate, mainly associated with Democratic party identification, became more open to removing Confederate statues from public property, with the biggest increase among younger Texans. The share of Democrats who said that the monuments should be removed increased from 75% to 86%, with sizable increases among many groups that are part of the Democratic coalition. For example, support for removing the monuments increased from 60% to 82% among African Americans; from 41% to 73% among voters under 30; and from 49% to 61% among urban voters. Among suburban voters, support for removing the monuments increased from 39% to 53%. The biggest shift in attitudes, however, came from Texans under 30, among whom the share who said that the monuments should be completely removed from public view tripled, from 9% to 27%.
|Moved to museum||46%||34%||26%||29%|
|Remain with historical context||14%||21%||24%||32%|
|Don't know/No opinion||5%||10%||4%||1%|
|Removed from view||9%||7%||10%||7%|
|Moved to museum||32%||31%||30%||27%|
|Remain, add context||26%||20%||21%||22%|
|Remain as is, unchanged||27%||30%||35%||42%|
There was some evidence of a moderate shift among some groups, mainly associated with Republican party identification, from leaving the statues unaltered, to leaving them where they are, but with added historical context. In 2017, a majority of Republicans, 55%, endorsed leaving the statues in-place, unaltered (the status quo). Slightly less than three years later, 35% now embrace that status quo, while the share who would leave them in place with additional context increased by 7 points from 32% to 39%. Taken together, 74% of Republicans favor leaving the statues in place, but a slightly larger share of those Republicans would prefer to see the addition of historical context, as opposed to leaving the statues in place unaltered. The story is much the same for other groups traditionally considered part of the Republican coalition, as Table 1 illustrates.
|2017: Monuments should remain unchanged||2020: Monuments should remain unchanged||Change||2017: Add historical context||2020: Add historical context||Change|
In each case, the share of white, rural, and older voters wanting the statues removed also grew, but not enough to represent the majority preference of each group: leaving the statues in place.
These are the groups that appear most and least supportive of removing or moving the monuments:
|Most Supportive of Removing Monuments||Most Supportive of Leaving Monuments|
|College Educated Democrats||91%||Republican Women||77%|
|Liberals||88%||Republicans without a College Degree||76%|
|Democratic Men||85%||Republican Men||72%|
|Democrats without a College Degree||83%||College Educated Republicans||71%|
|African Americans||82%||65 and older||61%|
|18 to 29 year olds||73%||Rural voters||59%|
|30 to 44 year olds||60%||45 to 64 year olds||51%|
|College Educated Voters||58%|
President Trump’s supporters are likely to receive his embrace of leaving the monuments alone favorably. Among those who approve strongly of the president’s overall job performance, 84% prefer that the statues remain where they are, with 39% preferring the addition of historical context and 45% (a plurality) preferring that the statues be left in place unchanged.
Attitudes toward discrimination and the anti-racism protests of supporters of Confederate monuments contradicts any suggestion that their memorialization of the civil war is not related to their attitudes about race. Among Texans who say that Confederate monuments should remain on public property unchanged (20% overall), 3% said that African Americans face “a lot” of discrimination in America today, while 40% said the same of whites, to the contrary and despite all available evidence. A majority of this group (63%) felt that African Americans face either “not very much” discrimination or none at all while only 26% said the same of whites. Among this same group, 86% believe that the deaths of African Americans after encounters with police in recent years are isolated incidents (as opposed to signs of broader problems); the same share held an unfavorable view of the protests that occurred in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The politics of Confederate monuments in Texas
The overall attitudinal shift between 2017 and 2020 toward more support for changing the status quo is most plausibly explained by the impact of intervening events that have drawn public attention to racism in the United States. Both the scope and intensity of the rejection of Confederate symbols have increased in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the protest that have followed. Yet the extent of the remaining support for leaving the statues where they are suggests that GOP elected officials are unlikely to shift course from their demonstrated failure to respond decisively, let alone quickly, to calls to remove these monuments or other symbols associated with memorializing the CSA, as we’ve seen in a couple of other former Confederate states in recent weeks.
One has only to look at the last major attempt at addressing the presence of the memorials on the grounds of the Texas Capitol to see GOP policy makers' resistance to facing these matters head on. The last concrete effort to remove just one Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds took a year and half of political and administrative stalling by most of the state’s relevant Republican leadership.
In October 2017, then-State Representative Eric Johnson, who is African-American and is now the mayor of Dallas, sent a letter to the director of the State Preservation Board requesting the removal of a plaque near his office that had been installed in 1959 and asserted, per Johnson’s letter, that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery." While the discussion to follow would mince words, State Rep. Johnson did not: "The Confederacy expemplified treason agains the United States and White Supremacy," he wrote, "Texans do not extol treason agains the United States or white supremacy as values."
A series of political zig-zags by GOP leaders ensued: A 2017 meeting on the request between Johnson and Governor Greg Abbott resulted in each characterizing the discussion differently afterward; later, in a rare moment of legislative deference, the Governor opined in a debate during his 2018 re-election campaign that the “plaque was put up at a vote by the Texas Legislature. It’s the Texas Legislature with the responsibility to take it down”; not long after that, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a formal opinion placing the authority to remove the memorial in the hands of both the legislature or the State Preservation Board, presided over by the governor. The board – made up of The Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, the Republican chairs of the Administration Committees in both chambers, and a citizen appointee — ultimately voted to remove the plaque in January 2019, and it was taken down shortly after the vote.
All of which is a long way of saying that the attitudes captured above seemed on the minds of GOP officials ever attentive to issues that unify their base. Recall that as of 2017, per the table above, 55% of Republicans said civil war monuments on public property should be left as they are found, and another 32% said the situation could be remedied by adding context. (One can’t help wonder, what? Maybe another plaque? A QR code linking to a website that does some explaining to the curious or skeptical?)
Setting aside for the sake of argument the personal opinions of the Republican policy makers in question, the patterns in Republican attitudes go a long way toward explaining why the efforts to act on these memorials at the Capitol have been subject to evasions by Republican officials seemingly unable to ignore the issue, but also loathe to be seen as acting decisively to address the racism imbued in these monuments. As Texas Republican officials muddled through the later stages of responding to State Rep. Johnson's letter, many were reeling from the closer-than-elected 2018 mid-term elections, which found Democrats gaining seats in the state legislature and statewide officals used to enjoying double-digit margins of victory — most prominently Lt. Governor Patrick and Attorney General Paxton — wining by single-digit magins that were the political equivalent of near-death experiences. During that interlude, there was a lot of talk among Republican elected officials, especially in the legislature, about how to reconnect with their base while finding ways to be a bit more pragmatic. (See, for example, State Rep. Jeff Leach's comments and tone in this conversation that happened to include State Rep. Johnson at an LBJ School Future Forum event at UT Austin shortly after the election.) Threading the needle rather than finding a way to dismiss the request may well have been a sign of Republicans' post-election mood as well as the changing general climate.
Such caution notwithstanding, the GOP leadership's general reluctance to get down to the racist brass tacks was evident not just in the tortuous process engaged to deal with one plaque in one Capitol corridor, but also in the fig leaf that adorned most Republicans' discussion: As the request moved through the process, the whole effort was most frequently couched as a question of “historical accuracy” in the plaque’s characterization of the civil war, rather than the explicit glorification of the racist origins of the Confederacy, never mind the much more proximate issue of the timing of the plaque’s erection in 1959, in the midst of the civil rights movement. Few Republicans seemed ready to charge up that hill, save then-Speaker Joe Straus. The cliché is deplorable, but it's hard not to resort to invoking the exception that proves the rule.
As with most every political, policy, and ethical question facing Texas Republican elected officials in this election year, Donald Trump’s thumb is putting disportionate weight on the scale here, too. In response to growing support in the country for some mixture of reconsidering and removing some of these markers from prominent public view, President Trump has characteristically doubled-down on activating the worst instincts of his core supporters and incorporated a half-cocked, deeply simplistic defense of the symbols and public artifacts of the Civil War into his efforts to rally the base. The most recent calls for the removal of Confederate monuments and the like from the Capitol, emanating as they are from Democrats, take place in a moment with less support evident in public opinion for holding the line or at least ignoring the issue; but the best that can be expected is likely another slow play. Exhibit A here is the Senate committee formed by Lt. Governor Patrick — the President's staunchest, most visible ally in the Texas — that is charged with reviewing “the history and procedures for the placement of art and other decor in the historic Texas Senate Chamber,” per the Dallas Observer. (This gesture emerged from a promise Patrick made during a hot debate over a bill sponsored by Senator Brandon Creighton that would have made it procedurarlly more difficult to remove monuments from the Capitol. (The bill never made it out of the Senate.) Between the lack of interest in any decisive action by the GOP majority on the committee, the Lt. Governor's own political position, and the fact that the Capitol buidling is closed indefinitely due to the raging pandemic, expect another drawn out review with at best minimal consequences.
As the presidential election plays out in Texas, Trump's pandering on the preservation of Confederate symbols resonates with no small share of his strongest supporters, as both the Texas data above and much national polling illustrates. Whether this does Texas Republicans any good in the long run is likely far from Trump's mind, but the short term benefits for Trump likely don't accrue to Texas Republicans in the long run. Texas as a whole continues to get younger, more diverse, more urban. These are all groups increasingly opposed to public displays honoring a history they tie directly to the systemic racism that killed George Floyd, and to people of color disproportionately suffering physically and economically, and dying, as a result of the pandemic. The president’s increasingly desperate hawking of another trumped-up historical narrative about the sanctity of history to his base only further fuels the calls for including Confederate memorials in the current reckoning with race among the share of the electorate who see his performance on this front as another reason to find him reprehensible. The electoral consequences of this dialectic of mobilizaiton and counter-mobilizaiton won't be known until November.
In the meantime, given Texas Republican leaders’ demonstrated reluctance to challenge either Trump or the sizable if shrinking share of defenders of last century’s memorializations of the confederacy among their voters, it seems unlikely that Texas’ elected leaders will be removing monuments any time soon. The shifts in public attitudes likely have not been large enough among the right folks for any GOP elected leaders to risk taking a forward-thinking position requiring more Republican voters to reconsider their own, even if it’s likely to pay off in the long run if the current trends continue. On the surface, it may seem ironic that in a state with a reputation for triumphalism and braggadaccio, history remains written by losers, at least on the grounds of the Texas Capitol; but any such irony is illusory, given the enduring political value of the cultural capital of the Confederacy among shrinking but still politically valuable share of the Texas electorate. Slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, but beliefs in white supremacy soldiered on.