FALLS CHURCH, Va. – In a state where Confederate monuments have stood for more than a century and have recently become a flashpoint in the national debate over racial injustice, Virginians remain about evenly divided on whether the statues should stay or go, according to a new poll.
The poll conducted this month by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 46% support removal of Confederate statues and 42% oppose removal. A similar divide emerged over the question of changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders, with 44% in support and 43% opposed.
“I just can’t really understand why anyone doesn’t see those monuments for what they actually are,” said Joanne Bach, 59, of South Chesterfield, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Richmond.
“They were put up as a reminder for Blacks to stay in their place … that you live in a white-dominated world,” she said. “And I find them to be intimidating.”
Bach works in customer service in the food industry. She said her great- grandfather fought for the Confederacy and was captured at the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.
“But it doesn’t, in any way, make me feel like I’m a daughter of the Confederacy who thinks, ‘Gee, I wish we’d have won the war,'" she said.
The question of the Confederacy's legacy in Virginia is particularly pointed given that Richmond is the former Confederate capital. Protests in Richmond and other parts of the state this year have at times targeted longstanding Confederate memorials.
City officials have removed most of the statues from Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue. But the most prominent one, a towering tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, still stands pending resolution of a lawsuit. The statue is owned by the state.
Clayton Collins, 84, a retired electrician from outside Petersburg, also about 25 miles south of Richmond, said he strongly opposes removing the monuments because they’re “part of history.”
Unlike Bach, Collins said the statues are “not intimidating anybody.”
“It’s just the same thing as putting up the crucifixion of Christ or the manger scene," he said, adding that the efforts to remove monuments are part of a broader effort by “socialists” who “want to do away with the past” and ban conservatives from speaking at universities.
The 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left a counterprotester dead had its origins in a city debate over whether to remove Confederate statues. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden cited the Charlottesville rally as the reason he entered the race, after President Donald Trump defended both protesters and counterprotesters who clashed there.
While the poll found a nearly even split on the question of Confederate statues and names, it found more consensus on whether the Confederate flag should be banned from display on government property, with 60% supporting a ban and 29% opposed.
On another topic, the poll found only about 1 in 4 Virginians support keeping schools in the state completely closed to in-person learning.
While the vast majority favor a return to in-person learning, the poll also shows that most believe adjustments have to be made to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
According to the poll, only 27% of Virginians say K-12 schools should not reopen at all, and 22% say the same about colleges.
On the other side, only 11% believe K-12 schools should open as usual, and only 10% believe the same for colleges.
Data from the Virginia Department of Education shows that about 80% of the commonwealth's 1.3 million students are learning in fully virtual environments.
The poll was conducted Sept. 8-14, in the midst of a special session during which lawmakers approved legislation to prohibit the use of police chokeholds, restrict law enforcement's use of no-knock search warrants, and make it easier to decertify police officers guilty of misconduct. But the legislature rejected a provision that would make it easier to sue for alleged misconduct.
The poll showed strong support for some of the legislature's measures, with 71% supporting a chokehold ban and 66% supporting a ban on no-knock warrants. Reducing funding for law-enforcement agencies, however, received support from only 23%.
The poll also indicates that unprecedented numbers of Virginians plan to take advantage of expanded vote-by-mail options. Roughly a third of those polled said they planned to vote by mail. Only 5% said they had done so regularly in the past.
None of the political figures included in the survey received a favorable rating of 50% or higher. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who is seeking his third term in the U.S. Senate, is viewed favorably by 44% and unfavorably by 35%. His Republican opponent, political newcomer Daniel Gade, is viewed favorably by 25% and unfavorably by 8%, with 67% not familiar enough with him to say how they feel.
In the presidential race, views on Biden are about equally split, while Trump is viewed negatively by 6 in 10.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also had a net-unfavorable rating, at 42-48.
The poll was conducted by mail, with the option for respondents to take the survey online or by phone. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.