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The South's Changing Demographics


America is becoming more racially diverse. And in a growing number of counties, whites are no longer the majority. Some have greeted these changing demographics with fear, others have embraced it. And parties that have reached out to new voters of color are winning races.

We've been exploring what these changes mean on a local level and what they forecast for national politics in this election year. I visited one town that has been undergoing a gradual but dramatic racial and political transformation, Conyers, Ga., about a 30-minute drive east of Atlanta.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, Ms. Cindy. How are you?

FADEL: Conyers in Rockdale County is one of those small southern cities where everyone knows your name. The drug store has a classic soda fountain. The mayor's the local pharmacist. The city is a microcosm for the shifting demographics of Southern suburbs.

Two decades ago, Rockdale County was 18% African American. And now, according to the Pew Research Center's most recent analysis of census data, that number is 55%. Among those who moved to Conyers was Cheryl Miles Board. She left New York City in 2002, moving her family to Georgia when a job opportunity came her way.

CHERYL MILES BOARD: I was easily able to get a four-bedroom, three-bath home for a fraction of what we had our home in New York for and still be able to put college tuition away once I sold the house in New York.

FADEL: That's not an unusual story in Rockdale and other southern counties from Tennessee to Mississippi. In the past 20 years, there's been what many are calling a reversal of the Great Migration, middle and upper-class black families moving from the north to the south or from the cities to the suburbs in search of good school districts and more house for their dollar. Cheryl Miles Board is a local business owner and the head of the Rockdale County Democratic Party.

BOARD: When I moved onto our block, I think we were the only black family on that particular block at the time.

FADEL: Board says her family encountered subtle forms of racism.

BOARD: We had neighbors across the street that felt that they should be a part of our business and called everything into the sheriff's department or called into code enforcement. I mean, yeah, it got reported that we had too many cars in our driveway and, you know, that kind of stuff.

FADEL: But today, things are different in her neighborhood and the county. The local government is starting to reflect that demographic and political shift.

TISA SMART-WASHINGTON: Well, it's definitely changed. I think the most significant was back in 2012.

FADEL: That's Tisa Smart-Washington. She was the chair of the Democratic Party back then. Today, she's the county tax commissioner.

SMART-WASHINGTON: We were totally red and had been for a very long time. And we saw that the numbers were changing and saw that it was an opportunity.

FADEL: When you say the numbers were changing...

SMART-WASHINGTON: Just the demographics. The demographics were changing. It's getting a little browner, a little younger out here in Rockdale.

FADEL: So in 2012, the Democratic Party ran candidates for every local county race on the ballot, branding it the Slate of Eight. The incumbents were mostly Republican. And every Republican was white. They all lost their seats.

SMART-WASHINGTON: I think it was less about them being black candidates and more about them being Democratic candidates, and that the county was changing. The metro Atlanta area changed and is changing. And it was just an opportunity for folks who never had a voice or didn't have a voice in a long time to step up to get a chance to lead in the community that they live in.

FADEL: But there was a backlash. A Republican member of the county's Board of Elections wrote a controversial editorial on a conservative blog. He compared the county to a little white airplane that grew blacker and blacker until it was hijacked by liberals that would bring, quote, "crime, incompetence, cronyism and corruption." The editorial was condemned by Republicans and Democrats as racist, but it's a sentiment we heard from a few residents we spoke to, that the change in demographics was bringing thugs and crime, even though crime is actually dropping. One of those who condemned the editorial was Larry Cox of the Rockdale County GOP.

LARRY COX: Every party has morons and people that embarrass, but a letter like that and a statement like that and that kind of mentality should embarrass everyone, not just Republicans.

FADEL: Cox concedes he's in the minority party in Conyers now. The GOP has given up on running candidates in local races and instead is shifting its focus to statewide offices.

COX: I think you see the rural areas becoming even more conservative because those people - they're not dying and not going into a black hole and disappearing. These voters still exist, and they're just moving outside the suburb.

FADEL: The Rockdale County GOP, Cox says, is embracing the shifting demographics. The local Republican chairman is an African American man, and two African American women sit on the board. But if the rest of the party doesn't figure out how to appeal to the new demographics of Georgia's metro and suburban areas, they risk losing the state, he says.

The party has already suffered losses at the state level. In the 2018 election, Republicans lost 13 seats in the state legislature. Many of the races were extremely close. Freshman state legislator El-Mahdi Holly flipped a Republican seat in the Georgia Assembly last year. It was the first win for the African American teacher but not his first campaign. A few years prior, Holly went knocking on doors in nearby Henry County for Democratic candidates and got a frightening reception from some.

EL-MAHDI HOLLY: Some communities where folks are unfortunately fearful of outsiders, right? I've gone to, you know, their doors in 2014 and, you know, had one individual try to sic a dog on me. And another person, you know, came to the doorstep and here - all I have is pamphlets in my hands. And I dressed nicely. And I'll go to the door, and gentlemen's there with his pistol in his hand. And you know, and I explain to him, sir, I'm not trying to rob you.

FADEL: But four years later, it was a different story.

HOLLY: Some of the same houses, out steps a elderly black grandma (laughter), you know? It's a big shock.

FADEL: While the GOP still controls the state assembly, the lesson of 2018 is not lost on Rockdale's Republicans, says Larry Cox.

COX: You know, we want to be a diverse party, and we want to actually, you know, show the representation of what the community actually looks like and what the community thinks.

FADEL: The party that diversifies first, Cox says, will be the party that leads the county, the state and the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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