Fall 2017 Articles, Politics, Race, Social Issues

Should Confederate Statues be Removed?

Even 150 years later, the Civil War continues to stir up passions.  For some, the South fought a noble, if doomed, battle against Yankee invaders.  Others consider Confederates merely traitors fighting to keep slavery legal.

Streets, schools, and landmarks across the nation bear the names of Confederate military and political leaders.  Furthermore, many towns and cities across the nation display public monuments and statues dedicated to Confederates such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.

Critics claim these memorials promote racism. But in recent years, efforts to remove statues commemorating Confederate figures has been met with fervid, sometimes even violent, resistance.

National polls suggest Americans favor keeping Confederate statues in place. We decided to test whether NC State students agreed or disagreed with the conventional opinion.

Pack Poll asked a panel of students, “Do you favor or oppose removing statues and memorials of Confederate leaders?”  Approximately 59% of students favored removing public Confederate statues, 26% opposed removing the statues, and 15% of students expressed no opinion on the matter.

Party identification was the most useful predictor of students’ opinions.  Over three-quarters of Democrats (78%) supported the removal of Confederate statues with merely 14% of Republicans agreeing.  Conversely, about 71% of Republicans approved of keeping Confederate statues publicly displayed. Only 9% of Democrats felt similarly.

We also wondered if students would view specific, local Confederate statues differently. In particular, we wanted to view students’ attitudes towards the Silent Sam statue on UNC Chapel Hill’s Campus.  The Silent Sam statue was erected in 1913 to commemorate alumni from UNC Chapel Hill whose lives were lost while fighting on behalf of the Confederacy during the Civil War.  The statue has been a source of controversy for decades, and the memorial has been vandalized on multiple occasions.

We asked our panel, “Do you favor or oppose removing the Silent Sam statue from UNC Chapel Hill’s campus?”  This sample of students had not been asked the previous question about Confederate statues.  Furthermore, students were not given background information about the Silent Sam statue.

As expected, a greater proportion of students held “No Opinion” towards the Silent Sam controversy. Interestingly, respondents seemed significantly less likely to advocate removing the Silent Sam statue compared to any generic Confederate statue.

Perhaps critics of Confederate statues are less familiar with Civil War memorials than students that favor keeping the statues in place. Alternatively, students may be more ambivalent about removing “local” Confederate memorials.

Nonetheless, it seems a plurality, if not a majority of NC State students, see Confederate statues as monuments of shame as opposed to testaments of valor.


Almost 700 students were asked to take this survey and 279 completed it. However, we cannot report a margin of sampling error for this survey because our results come from on a non-probability sample. Most of our surveys adhere to the theoretical principles of probability sampling, such as when every NCSU student has a non-zero and equal chance of being randomly invited to take a survey (and nearly all we contact respond to it). Instead, only certain students were asked to take this survey.

Our result come from students who previously agreed to be sent our future surveys. In short, they chose us, non-randomly, so we can’t know for sure if they “think like” most students. If respondents are not selected according to probability theory, it isn’t possible to calculate traditional diagnostic statistics about a survey, such as the margin of sampling error.

Most industry professionals today, however, agree that the margin of sampling error is overrated for evaluating the validity of polling results; if only 20% (or less!) of students respond to an invitation to take a survey, even when they were contacted at random, the subsequent sample doesn’t conform to the assumptions of probability theory. We could present advanced statistics about the likely representativeness of our sample, but the benefit of generating those stats is outweighed by their degree of complexity.

Instead, we argue that in general we’ve learned that our panel of interested survey takers does a good job of mimicking a random sample of State students. Over the past two semesters, we’ve tested whether differences exists between results we obtain from the non-probability panel compared to a truly random draw. So far, we don’t observe significant differences of opinions asked among students contacted the different methods. Past results suggests that our results for students’ opinions about Confederate statues are broadly representative of what most undergraduates at NCSU think about Confederate statues.

Nevertheless, we might have overestimated NC State’s opposition towards Confederate statues. More of our respondents call themselves “Democrat” than is probably true for all undergraduates, and Democrats express higher levels of opposition towards Confederate statues. Since political partisanship is a fluid attitude and not a fixed characteristic, like age, we can’t be certain about the “true” percentage of Democrats (or Republicans). Thus, without knowing more about the fixed traits of our sample (we did not ask more questions about their demographics), nor being certain our sample is “too Democratic,” we do not attempt to weight/adjust our data to known properties about NCSU undergraduates.

For additional information about best practices for reporting on the precision of non-probability sampling, you can read this guidance for how to report on results from non-probability samples.

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