The U.S. government is funding research to show that Confederate symbols prompt a negative physiological response in black people, information some believe will be helpful in lawsuits aimed at removing them.
Jackson State University received $420,000 in grant funds, some from the National Science Foundation, to delve deeper into the physiological responses of black people to Confederate imagery after initial research allegedly revealed negative reactions, the Jackson Free Press reports.
Political science professor D’Andra Orey concocted a study that blends biology and politics by measuring the heart rate of participants, and how much they sweat, when shown different images like a t-shirt with the Confederate flag, or the Mississippi state flag that contains the Confederate flag.
The reactions are compared to responses to “happy images” like penguins or exposure to blank images, and an initial pilot study of black faculty and students at JSU allegedly showed the Confederate images produce a negative physical reaction.
“When you see the flag, and you start sweating, that fits with the sympathetic nervous system,” Orey said. “When people have a negative response to these particular images, that means that it impacts them negatively, which is physiologically.”
The research comes amid a raging debate in Mississippi over the state flag, which contains the Confederate battle flag in the upper left corner. The Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans have struggled to keep the flag as is despite mounting pressure from social justice advocates demanding a change.
Most recently, Grenada-based attorney Carlos Moore sued Gov. Phil Bryant over the state flag, claiming it is both unconstitutional and negatively impacted his health by raising his blood pressure. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves threw out the case, but Moore appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Free Press reports.
The lawsuit was dismissed mostly because Moore could not prove harm from the flag, but Orey’s research could change that.
“We’re actually trying to see if this negative physiological response can be measured into an injury or can be captured as an injury,” he said.
“They can say it bothers them, and then it doesn’t register in their physiological response while others (can) say, ‘it doesn’t bother me, I’m immune to it … but I get (physiologically) pissed off every time I see it,” Orey said.
In Moore’s case, Reeves ruled that he did now show a “cognizable legal injury” as a result of viewing the state flag, but acknowledged ties between the Confederate battle flag symbol and the state’s history of slavery. The ruling makes it clear that regardless of whether the flag makes Moore uncomfortable, there’s no constitutional protections for anxiety from state symbols.
According to CBS News:
Mississippi has used the same flag since 1894. Its upper left corner has the Confederate battle emblem – a red field topped by a blue X dotted with 13 white stars. Voters chose to keep the banner in a 2001 referendum. It’s the last state flag in the nation to prominently feature the emblem.
Like other Confederate symbols, the Mississippi flag has come under increased scrutiny since the June 2015 killings of black worshippers in South Carolina. The white man charged in that case had posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos published online. Several cities and counties and seven of Mississippi’s eight public universities have stopped flying the state flag.
“Moore’s arguments are phrased as constitutional claims, yet his allegations of physical injuries suggest that he is making an emotional distress tort claim,” Reeves wrote. “To succeed in constitutional litigation, however, Moore needs to identify that part of the Constitution which guarantees a legal right to be free from anxiety at State displays of historical racism. There is none.”