The Hate Next Door: Unexpected Faces of the Neo-Confederacy
Originally published at Daily Kos
There is nothing new about loose talk extolling the virtues of a second secession in America's south. In Texas, of course, such talk is all but an article of the state constitution, and long has been. And in the Deep South - states like Mississippi and Alabama - Confederate flags hanging limp in the withering heat are as much a part of the quotidian scenery as are magnolia blossoms and Moon Pies. But North Carolina is different…or so, at least, many of our sons and daughters would like to think. The last of the states to secede, on May 20th, 1861 (and even then only with great ambivalence), and the first and foremost to raise a sustained, home-grown, and devastating Unionist guerrilla movement behind the lines during the War Between the States (see, for instance, William T. Auman's Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt: The Confederate Campaign Against Peace Agitators, Deserters and Draft Dodgers), North Carolina was then, and is now, on balance more Northern in its sympathies and temperament than even more northerly rebel states such as Virginia. And with our state's top-ten rank in population growth (fueled largely by northern immigrants bearing northern dollars), North Carolina becomes more 'Northern' every day.
Still, old habits die hard, and waves of new immigrants do not overnight sweep away the Old Guard before them. Just how true this is here in the Tar Heel State has been starkly revealed by the paroxysm of Neo-Confederate sympathy suddenly and shockingly witnessed in the wake of the recent Charleston massacre and the ensuing lowering of the rebel battle flag in neighboring South Carolina. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Mapping Hate project has cataloged some 13 Confederate flag rallies across the state since Charleston, with a combined attendance earning the Tar Heel State second place in the U.S. for total attendance (just behind the much more populous Florida). SPLC's attendance estimates are sometimes greatly at odds with those of most reliable local observers, but on the other hand some recent North Carolina rallies are missing from its database.
We have just completed an unique demographic analysis of self-identified North Carolina Neo-Confederates, the findings from which I report here. We were aided in this effort by Facebook, where North Carolina-specific Neo-Confederate pages make it easy to identify the movement's leading sympathizers. Those pages include (but are not limited to):
- Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County
- Orange County Taking Back Orange County
- Guilford County Taking Back Guilford County
- Person County Taking Person County Back
- Rockingham County North Carolina Taking Back Rockingham County
- Caswell County Taking Back Caswell County
- North Carolina Taking Back North Carolina
- North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans
- and the page of the North Carolina chapter of the notorious secessionist White Power group, the League of the South
Using largely automated scripts to simplify the task, we tagged the most explicit post-Charleston Neo-Confederate posts from these and similar pages, extracted approximately 1,000 of the user profiles of readers who liked, shared, and/or commented favorably upon those posts, and cross-indexed those names with North Carolina's remarkably forthcoming downloadable database of registered voters' demographic information and voting behavior (the latter totaling about 24 million records). To minimize the chance of mis-identifying these individuals in that database we employed a three-point test: a Facebook user was associated with an individual voter record only if his name matched that of a registered voter, his Facebook profile's 'lives in' descriptor matched the voter's town or county of residence, and the preceding two criteria matched one and only one voter record in the database. This process produced a list totaling 367 Neo-Confederates plus their detailed demographics: age, gender, race, residence, political affiliation, complete histories of all their voter registration transactions - such as address updates and changes of party affiliation - and voting behaviors (which elections they did or did not vote in and, for "Unaffiliated" voters, which party's ballot they chose in each primary election in which they voted). The results outlined below are based on these data, supplemented with U.S. Census data where indicated.
Summary Demographics of North Carolina Neo-Confederate Sympathizers
Unsurprisingly, 99.5% of our collection of Neo-Confederates self-identified in voter registration records as being 'White.' The remainder specified 'Other.' None are 'Black.' Compare this with the racial distribution of currently-registered North Carolina voters overall, among whom 71% self-describe as 'White' and 22% as 'Black.'
A decent respect for the presumably more refined sensibilities of women-folk, coupled with casual observation of rally participants, had initially led us to expect that men must surely outnumber women among Neo-Confederate sympathizers (hereafter, NCS) by a wide margin. But nothing could be further from the truth: among our 367 NCS, 56% are men and 44% are women, precisely matching the gender breakdown of white North Carolina voters overall. Neo-Confederate sympathy is a gender-neutral phenomenon in The Tar Heel State.
While registered Republicans predominate among NCS (50% overall, and 73% of all those who are not 'Unaffiliated"), Democrats nonetheless manage a surprisingly strong showing (18% overall, or 26% of all NCS who are not 'Unaffiliated').
Understanding this perhaps surprising finding requires some historical perspective. In the North, the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War itself were largely championed by the Republican "Party of Lincoln," and the vast majority of Union-appointed Reconstruction officials were Republicans as well, whereas Northern Democrats of that era were inclined to tolerate slavery in the South, and many were sympathetic to the Confederates' motivation, if not their cause. As a result, a legacy of distrust of Republicans and affinity for Democrats (reversed only as late as the Nixon administration, with its Southern Strategy) was long common among vanquished Confederates - a legacy which lives on today in North Carolina's high frequency of DINOs (Democrats in name only), who are Democrats only by virtue of family history, not by political beliefs or voting behavior.
Reinforcing this explanation is our survey's observation that, among registered NCS who claim no party affiliation (32% of all NCS), nearly twice as many vote exclusively Republican ballots in primaries (45%) as do those who vote exclusively Democratic ballots (26%); the remaining 28% have voted a mix of the two parties' ballots over the years.
Still, it is difficult to explain how today's NCS voters with documented Democratic sympathies (those 26% of Unaffiliateds who vote exclusively Democratic primary ballots) can harbor both Democratic and Neo-Confederate sympathies at the same time, without being forced to conclude that the Democratic Party in North Carolina itself still harbors its own fair share of bigots. But, in fairness, the reader should note that these Democratic-voting Unaffiliateds are a very small fraction of our sample (just 4% of all NCS) - the majority of Unaffiliated NCS voters (59%) have never voted any partisan ballot, Republican or Democratic.
In short, Republicans-in-fact plus Republicans-by-sentiment comprise the lion's share - but by no means all - of our NCS sample.
Contrary to what we had expected (namely, that Neo-Confederate sympathizers, at this 150 year remove from the War, are a dying breed), today's NCS are a remarkably youthful group, as the graph below illustrates.
Figure 1: Age distribution of Neo-Confederate sympathizer (NCS) voters (red) versus all white North Carolina voters (grey).
While it is good to bear in mind that our sample of NCS voters was derived from social media - and thus may be somewhat skewed toward its users' overall age distribution - nonetheless a comparison of the NCS age distribution in the figure above with that of Facebook users overall illustrates that the abundance of young NCS voters in our sample cannot be accounted for by the demographics of Facebook users overall. Younger voters (ages 18-32) account for one-third of all NCS in our sample, suggesting a movement whose sympathies are likely to live on for decades to come.
Looking out over the clutches of Neo-Confederate sympathizers who actually attend public rallies, one might well be forgiven for arriving at the conclusion the the NCS movement as a whole is comprised primarily of lower-income citizens. Indeed, as the NC-NAACP's Laurel Ashton so eloquently said at an NAACP Historical Accuracy press conference in Hillsborough just days before the flag-waver rally there:
The tragedy is that these very people, those who will drive through the Piedmont waving Confederate flags, converging here in this courtyard, these very people, many of whom are poor and face a system of economic oppression daily, are hurting and sometimes even dying because of the policies passed by our elected officials. It is these poor white southerners who are so often without healthcare, who are underpaid and need a raise in the minimum wage, who have children struggling in under-resourced public schools, who live alongside black folks in rural communities where they can’t drink the water because of lack of environmental protections. It is these poor white folks who need access to affordable women’s healthcare, who need an end to the death penalty, who need emergency unemployment and earned income tax credits.
Yet, here again, the data indicate that the stereotype is an over-simplification of the reality. For, as the graph below illustrates, while activist flag-wavers with nothing better to do of an afternoon may indeed be primarily low-income folks (a question which our data cannot speak to), clearly the greater Neo-Confederate sympathizer movement is primarily a middle-class phenomenon.
Figure 2: Percent of residents below the poverty level in Neo-Confederate sympathizers' zip codes (red), versus all white North Carolina voters (grey). Poverty data from the 2013 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Judging by U.S. Census data regarding the poverty levels in the zip codes in which they reside, NCS voters are remarkably middle-class - indeed, more so than North Carolina white voters overall.
North Carolina's NCS voters routinely post election turnout figures which are 10 to 20 percentage points below those of all white voters, reflecting their relatively low degree of meaningful political engagement. It is also worth noting that the two election years which witnessed their highest turnouts - 2008 and 2012 - are the two years in which an African American stood for the office of president, in keeping with the notion that racial politics can be a motivating factor for NCS voters.
Our survey's methods do not enable us to calculate the percentage of all NCS commenters who are registered to vote, but our distinct impression has been that it is likely to be much lower than 50%.
As the map below illustrates, NCS voters in our sample are largely concentrated in three hot-spots throughout North Carolina. The largest of these, by far, is the old "Quaker Belt" region of the north-central Piedmont - which, ironically, William Ausman's book (cited at the beginning of this diary) identifies as the nexus of the anti-Confederate unionist guerrilla movement of the Civil War era. Equally unionist-dominated back then was another of the state's current NCS hot-spots, in the extreme west's Blue Ridge Mountain region (specifically, just south of Asheville). As Ausman discusses at length, both of these regions of North Carolina had extremely low numbers of persons held in slavery during the antebellum period (because the regions' poor soils made large plantations unfeasible), rendering these the homes of poor subsistence farmers and 'mechanics,' who neither needed nor could afford slaves and, as a result, had no dog in the fight that was the Civil War, and no sympathy for it.
Our NCS voters reside in at least 55 of North Carolina's 100 counties. The top ten - those which are home to 2% or more of the NCS in our survey - include Alamance (26%), Orange (13%), Henderson (8%), Rockingham (6%), Gaston (4%), Guilford (4%), Person (3%), Cleveland (3%), Wake (3%) and Granville (2%).
Figure 3: Geographic distribution of North Carolina Neo-Confederate sympathizers in our sample, from voter registration home address data.
Data Sources Used in This Project:
- North Carolina Neo-Confederate activist names and home towns: Facebook pages cited in the text, and Facebook profiles of frequent posters there
- Address, age, race, and party affiliation information: NC State Board of Elections voter registration files
- Voting behavior data: NC State Board of Elections voter history files
- Supplemental demographic data: U.S. Census & American Community Survey data