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South Carolina's Political, Racial Divides Complicate Flag Future

The road to removing the confederate battle flag from the State Capitol grounds in South Carolina goes through the lawmakers who serve in that building.

The road to removing the Confederate battle flag from the State Capitol grounds in South Carolina goes through the lawmakers who serve in that building. There it may face an uncertain path as the state’s racial tensions combine with state House and Senate districts drawn without much concern for competitiveness or racial diversity.

Republicans in the state House and Senate largely represent districts that are overwhelmingly white and Democrats tend to represent districts that are above the state average for their percentage African Americans.

And most legislators hold “safe” seats where they aren’t concerned about appealing to the other party. In 2014 the overwhelming majority of state House members – nearly 90 of 124 – ran unopposed.

Why does that matter in the flag debate? Because race has had a lot to do with where South Carolinians have stood on the flag – or at least it did before the killing of nine African-Americans in Charleston last week.

Almost three-quarters of whites in the state said they thought the flag should continue flying in a poll conducted by Winthrop University in 2014. Among African-Americans, 61 percent said the flag should come down.

African-Americans make up a big portion of South Carolina’s population, about 28 percent, but nowhere near a majority.

Now consider the breakdown of the upper and lower chambers of the South Carolina legislature.

There are 46 state Senate districts – 28 of them are represented by Republicans and in all but one the African-American population is under the state average of 28 percent.

There are 124 state House districts, 78 of them are represented by Republicans and in all but four of them the African American population is under the 28 percent state average.

By legislative agreement, a two-thirds majority is needed to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds. In other words, getting the votes to pull down the stars and bars is not only going to require winning Republicans, who have supported the flag in the past. It is going to require winning Republicans that represent districts that are much whiter than the state as a whole.

On Tuesday, the state house voted to begin discussing the removal of the flag from state grounds, a first step in the process. But that process might be complicated.

Nationally, there seems to be momentum for taking the flag off the Capitol grounds. When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican called for the flag’s removal Monday, she was flanked by the both of the state’s Republican U.S. senators as well as other state officials from both parties.

But, as these numbers suggest, feelings in the state Capitol Building are less clear.

An ongoing impromptu survey of both houses on the flag question being conducted by the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, finds a large number of legislators are silent or undecided on the issue. Most are Republicans.

And Republican state Sens. Larry Martin and Mike Fair both said on Monday that the flag issue was being rushed and the state should wait – even if it’s just a week – before taking up the issue. The African-American populations in both their districts are far below the state average, six percent and 11 percent respectively.