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Changing Demographics Influenced Shift In Southern Political Landscape

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Once, not all that long ago, the Confederate battle flag and the South were inseparable. But last week's shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church has changed that. As we've been reporting this week, state leaders across the region are distancing themselves from that controversial symbol of the Confederacy. We wanted to explore the shifting political landscape that's made this change possible. For more, we turn to Bruce Oppenheimer. He's a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Welcome to the program.

BRUCE OPPENHEIMER: Thank you, Audie. Good to be with you.

CORNISH: I want to begin with South Carolina, obviously at the center of this debate - and holds the first Southern primary. Remind us how complicated this has been - the issue of the flag - for national candidates visiting in the past.

OPPENHEIMER: Well, it's been a hot button issue in South Carolina. It's sort of a litmus test as to - are you on the side of what South Carolina conservatism stands, or are you within the Republican Party?

CORNISH: When you look at how some of the candidates have responded in the last few days, do you still see kind of remnants of that hesitation?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, I think they're being somewhat cautious. What will be interesting to see is the reaction of potential Republican primary voters and state legislators in South Carolina who are more conservative than the political leadership in the state at this point and whether, in fact, there will be some candidates in the field of Republican presidential candidates who will reject the idea of removing the Confederate flag from public grounds.

CORNISH: Help us understand some of the broader changes that have been happening in some of these states - maybe demographic changes - that are worth noting as an undercurrent to this discussion.

OPPENHEIMER: Well, again, there is variation in different states in the South. And places like North Carolina, for example, were very much affected by the immigration of people in the technical industries in the Research Triangle, for example. And in Georgia, you've had a big influx of Latino population in recent years. In South Carolina, for example, there is some change because you're getting people in auto industries which have set up plants and have brought in workers from different areas of the country and people who are, if not in labor unions, at least more sympathetic to the labor movement. So you're getting this sort of change going on. And in some cases, you're having increases in African-American population, as some African-Americans who had migrated to the North - that migration has ended, and there's some movement back to the South.

CORNISH: And as some have noted, in South Carolina, one of the senators is African-American - Tim Scott.

OPPENHEIMER: Yes, and he's a Republican, but it might be said that not to doing something about the flag might have been an affront to him, as well, at this point.

CORNISH: But do you think that the same discussion could have happened at all a few years ago?

OPPENHEIMER: I think that when some crisis or horror story hits, there is always an immediate reaction. In this case, you're getting a reaction probably that would not have occurred, at least, at this point, had this event not happened.

CORNISH: In a way, does it serve as a kind of proxy conversation for something else?

OPPENHEIMER: It may, but this is largely, in part, a symbolic issue, although it does have real substantive meeting to the states which are doing it. And it gets away from the issues which are of greater concern, I think, to African-Americans and other minorities in the South - for example, new voter registration laws reacting to the changes that have been brought about in the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court decision. Those sorts of things which are - you know, this may be the sauce, but those of the meat and potatoes of this issue.

CORNISH: Bruce Oppenheimer - he's a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

OPPENHEIMER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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