The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happened the last time South Carolina debated the Confederate flag? Hate, but also hope.

Protesters hold a sign during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Last week, a man gripped by hate walked into a church and shot nine innocent people in cold blood. How does a community begin to process an act of such unqualified evil? Part of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R) response was to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. The emergence of numerous photos of Dylann Roof proudly flaunting the flag underlined why it stands as a symbol of oppression—particularly to the African Americans who represent 30 percent of South Carolina’s population. Removing the flag finally seems like the right thing to do, even to many who once defended it.

How did the Confederate flag wind up in front of the Capitol in the first place? Its placement resulted from a delicate compromise, one forged in 2000 by black Democrats and white Republicans in the state legislature as a way to remove the flag from its even more venerable placement atop the Capitol dome. This compromise spawned several years of protest, dismay, and political struggle, and came with concessions on both sides. (For example, South Carolina established Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday.) Particulars of the compromise were laid out in exacting detail, from the height of the flagpole (30 feet, negotiated up from 20), its illumination (lighted at night), and security (it would be protected by a fence).

The earlier struggle illustrated how a strong backlash can occur when a valued symbol is threatened. As the issue became focal in the news in July 1999, sales of the flag surged forty-fold. The graph below is reproduced from our book, “Changing Minds, if Not Hearts: Political Remedies for Racial Conflict,” which elaborates on the 2000 flag episode.) In the flag’s waning days atop the Capitol, demand for an authentically flown flag became so intense that a capitol employee continually ran flags up and down the flagpole to meet it.

Unfortunately, the backlash against the flag removal appeared to be violent. Racial hate crimes roughly doubled in South Carolina during the period the flag compromise was being negotiated—a spike that did not occur nationally or in neighboring North Carolina. As the Charleston shooting illustrates all too vividly, racial conflict can serve as an impetus for horrific acts. Indeed, there are now several accounts of further race-motivated violence in the South.

On the positive side, a close look at the 2000 episode suggests the real possibility of consensus about removing the Confederate flag. As negotiations were taking place, we recruited a sample of South Carolinians who said they opposed flag removal to take part in an experiment. They were asked to consider the compromise that later became law, but we randomly assigned whether it was described 1) as a compromise between black and white leaders, 2) as a compromise supported by a majority of South Carolinians, or 3) without any explicit endorsement.

Although this group originally opposed removing the Confederate flag, support for the compromise was considerable (at least 34 percent) in every condition, and was especially high (43 percent) when respondents were told that a majority of their neighbors supported the proposal. These results show that at least some flag proponents are open to compromise, and points to a circumstance—the building of a cross-racial majority—that might succeed in winning them over.

But will there be widespread support for removing the Confederate flag completely? It is too soon to say. A poll of South Carolinians conducted last year found that 61 percent of respondents, and 73 percent of whites, opposed removing the flag—a result that provided ammunition to flag supporters. The earliest polls conducted after the Charleston shooting suggest this opposition has softened and is now hovering right around the 50 percent mark.

This shift in opinion may help give Haley’s proposal the support it would need to pass. (Early signs are promising.) On the other hand, we should not forget the t-shirts and bumper stickers that helped scuttle the reelection bid of the last Republican governor—David Beasley—to openly advocate for removing the Confederate flag: “Dump Beasley. Keep the flag.”

James M. Glaser is a Professor of Political Science and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Timothy J. Ryan an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are the authors of Changing Minds, if Not Hearts: Political Remedies for Racial Conflict.