A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama's election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.
It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite: Obama's election has brought about a revival of racism.
Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election.
I grant the polite assumption that not one of the elected officers of the states or the nation is a racist. But politicians do not need to be racist themselves in order to covet, to solicit, or to be influenced by the racist vote. This is shown by the pronounced difference between two by-now established ways of opposing the president.
There is the opposition that is truly political and varyingly respectable. This opposition is identifiable by its incompleteness, which is to say by its focus upon particular issues about which a particular case or argument can be made. Such opposition is credible as such because it implicitly concedes the president's humanity: Like the rest of us, he is a partial and fallible mortal who, if he is partly wrong, may also be partly right.
The other way of opposition is total. The president must be opposed, not on this or that issue, but upon all issues.
This opposition is often expressed in tones of contempt, not only of the president himself, but of the office he holds so long as it is held by him. Opposition to the president on a particular issue is understood by these opponents as incidental to a general condemnation: the intent, not only to defeat the president in any and all disagreements with him, but entirely to discredit and punish him and to nullify his administration.
This opposition is never mitigated by tokens or gestures of respect for the president's office, any of his aims or programs, his character, his person or his family. An opposition so complete and so vividly emotional cannot be, in any respectable sense, political.
Some of the president's congressional enemies - and these may be the most honest of them - have openly insulted him. But such candor is not necessary. Elected officials or candidates seeking the support or the votes of racists do not need to question the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate or to call him a Muslim, a communist, a Nazi or a traitor.
They need only to stand silently by while such slurs and falsehoods are loudly voiced in public by others. To the racist constituency, their silence is a message that secures votes. Their silence declares that no truth or dignity is worth as much as a vote.
Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the president's political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism. Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness. If any very visible one of their own should insult the president by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage. But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don't have to denominate the president by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.
This subtilized racism is not only a perhaps unignorable lure to Republican politicians; it can also be noticeably corrupting to Democrats.
In Kentucky, for example, where Obama is acknowledged carefully to be "unpopular," candidates of both parties have been, and still are, running "against Obama." If the president comes into the state to visit, some Democratic candidates, like Republican candidates, become conspicuously busy elsewhere.
And now suddenly it is politically correct to disavow racism symbolically. The most fervent members of Kentucky's single political party - Against Obama - are also against the Confederate flag and Jefferson Davis' statue.
No doubt these symbols will soon be put out of sight, and we will have so far cleaned up our history by hiding the evidence. Or by scapegoating a few conveniently disapproved persons and objects, we will free ourselves of the difficulties of our history. And so we will defer for a while longer the real hardship of repairing the real damages of racism and the Civil War.