No, you don’t get to conflate correlation and causation because it fits the narrative you want

Racists of a handful of varieties (neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, etc) descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend. They quickly clashed with counter-protesters, resulting in their previously-legal parade being declared unlawful. Soon after this declaration, one of the racists got in his car and attempted an act of terroristic mass murder that resulted in one death and at least a dozen and a half injuries. This horror was, ultimately, spurred by the racist hatred and ignorance of the racist marchers, but the ostensible reason for the protest was the proposed removal of a Confederate statue. This faux excuse to promote racist views has, thankfully, caused a number of Confederate statues and memorials to either be removed or be proposed for removal. Unfortunately, this faux excuse has also caused some bad science. Take this MotherJones article:

Most of these monuments were not erected right after the Civil War. In fact, all the way to 1890 there were very few statues or monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders. Most of them were built much later. And since I’m not an academic, I feel comfortable squeezing this history into a very short, oversimplified summary:

1861-1865: Civil War.

1865-1875: Reconstruction Era.

1875-1895: Reconstruction Era ends. Blacks are steadily disenfranchised, allowing Southern whites to enact Jim Crow laws. In 1896, Jim Crow is cemented into place when the Supreme Court rules it constitutional.

1895-1915: With blacks disenfranchised and Jim Crow laws safely in place, Southern whites begin a campaign of terror against blacks. Lynchings skyrocket, the KKK becomes resurgent, and whites begin building Confederate statues and monuments in large numbers.

1915-1955: Jim Crow reigns safely throughout the South.

1955-1970: The civil rights era starts after the Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that Jim Crow laws are unconstitutional. Southern whites mount massive and violent resistance, and start putting up Confederate monuments again.

Yes, these monuments were put up to honor Confederate leaders. But the timing of the monument building makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was: to physically symbolize white terror against blacks.

Oversimplified, indeed.

The case being made by MotherJones is right there in the last paragraph: due to timing, we know these statues were built to symbolize white terror against blacks. That is, they were specifically built to first and foremost scare black people into submission and to remind them of their place in this country. Unfortunately for MotherJones, the facts don’t support this argument.

First, let’s look at the MotherJones chart and another, more comprehensive chart (both from the Southern Poverty Law Center):

Confederate monument chart

Confederate monuments.jpg

Look at two of the more notable spikes on the chart: around 1911 and around 1961. What could possibly make those dates special? They’re the 50th and 100th anniversaries for the Civil War. It should surprise absolutely no one that we would also see a spike in memorial dedications around those times. Furthermore, consider the common timings of when war memorials are built in general. It can happen any time, but it certainly would seem to accelerate as veterans get into their old age. This could be due to a combination of factors, such as a younger generation being prepared to romanticize their elders, and older people generally having a disproportionate amount of political power (not to mention the personal time and means to take on memorial efforts). Just think to the period of time you recall hearing about ‘The Greatest Generation’ the most. It wasn’t in the 1950s, was it? No. It was into the 90s and early 2000s.

Let’s also look at the rise of the KKK. As the second chart notes, the organization was founded in 1866. What the chart doesn’t note, however, is that the KKK was at its most powerful around 1924. The economy was roaring, as they say, racists were more than plentiful, and the desire to instill fear in minorities was higher than ever. Yet memorials fell. This could be due to a host of reasons. Most Civil War veterans would have been dead (if the mean age of a soldier was 26 in 1865, then the mean age of veterans (dead and alive) would be 85 in 1924), so the push for memorials would be pushed into the backs of people’s mind. We also just finished an even larger war (albeit with fewer deaths), so our most pressing veteran’s issues were much more current. And, of course, we just had a period of time where we built and dedicated quite a few memorials. Whatever the reasons, the evidence points to the timing of these memorials having little to do with racist flare-ups.

Now, looking at the first chart, we see an attempt to correlate monument building with the lynching era. Except the greatest number of lynchings actually occurred in the decade prior. Forget about arguing causation. The chart hasn’t even successfully argued for correlation on this point.

I’ve been making these basic points across various social media platforms for the past day or two because I find this abuse of statistics 101 to be offensive. As a result, I’ve been called a Nazi sympathizer and/or had my motivations questioned. It doesn’t matter if I give a plain objection using the dry facts or if I preface my position by pointing out that, yes, of course these statues and memorials are racist monuments* to the losing side of a racist war. We now live in a culture where even the slightest bit of nuance that disagrees with side A means you must fully agree with side B. It’s utter horseshit. We have good reason to believe Civil War memorials and dedications spiked due to mundane factors such as veterans aging and anniversary dates. That does abso-fucking-lultey nothing to take away from the narrative that the Confederacy and memorials to it were and are racist. It does nothing to disparage efforts to remove statues. It simply demands that we rely on basic facts to make our points and arguments.

*There are a narrow band of monuments and memorials that should not be controversial because they honor and remember conscripted soldiers who often fought for reasons very different from the wealthy slave owners (who, of course, hired poor people to take their place on the battlefield). The band is very narrow, but it exists.

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