Weren't we supposed to enter a new age of tolerance with the election of President Barack Obama?
His half-black, half-white ancestry and broad support across racial lines suggested that at last Americans judged each other on the content of our characters -- not the color of our skin or our tribal affiliations.
Instead, in just 18 months of the Obama administration, racial discord is growing and relations seem to have been set back a generation.
Black voters are galvanizing behind Obama at a time of rapidly falling support. White independents, in contrast, are leaving Obama in droves.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has claimed that the loosely organized Tea Party includes "racist elements." The National Council of La Raza has ripped the state of Arizona for its new anti-illegal alien legislation. Jesse Jackson characterized aspects of the multimillion-dollar bidding war to acquire basketball superstar LeBron James in terms of masters and slaves. Pundits are arguing whether the fringe racist New Black Panther Party is analogous to the Klan.
In turn, a number of Americans want to know why -- nearly a half-century after the Civil Rights Act, affirmative action and Great Society programs -- some national lobbying organizations still identify themselves by archaic tribal terms such as "colored people" or "La Raza" ("the race") when it would be taboo for other groups to adopt such racial nomenclature.
Indeed, race seems to be the subtext of almost every contemporary issue, from the soaring deficit and government spending to recent presidential appointments and the enforcement of existing immigration law. In times of growing deficits, white people are stereotyped as being angry over supposedly paying higher taxes to subsidize minorities, while minorities are stereotyped as being mostly on the receiving end of entitlements.
Why the escalation of racial tension in the supposed postracial age of Obama?
First, Obama's reputation as a racial healer was largely the creation of the media. In fact, Obama had a number of racially polarizing incidents that probably would have disqualified any other presidential candidate of the past 30 years.
His two-decade apprenticeship at Trinity Church under the racist and anti-Semitic Rev. Jeremiah Wright has never been adequately explained. Obama indulged in racial stereotyping himself when he wrote off the white lower-middle class of Pennsylvania as clueless zealots clinging to their guns, religion and xenophobia.
Obama also characterized his grandmother as a "typical white person" when he implied that her supposed fear of young black males symbolizes the prejudices of the entire white community. Michelle Obama did not help things when, in clumsy fashion, she indicted America as "just downright mean"-- a nation she had not been proud of in her adult life until it embraced the hope and change represented by her husband's candidacy.
Such campaign trash talk did not stop during the first 18 months of the Obama presidency. The race-baiting Van Jones -- the short-lived presidential advisor on "green jobs" -- should never have been appointed. Then, the president himself criticized Cambridge, Mass., police for acting "stupidly" when they arrested his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
Then there was the outburst of Attorney General Eric Holder, who blasted America as "a nation of cowards" for not talking more about race on his terms. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was almost obsessive in self-referencing herself as a "Latina." She also suggested that her racial background and experiences made her "wise" in a way white male colleagues could never be.
Recently, Obama appealed to voters along exclusionary race and gender lines -- not traditional political allegiances -- when he called upon "the young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women, who powered our victory in 2008."
Yet the country passed the old white/black divide years ago. We are a racially diverse society of Asians, blacks, Hispanics, whites, and mixtures of all that and more. In a world of conservative Cubans and liberal whites, race is no longer necessarily a guide to politics.
Who now, exactly, is the racial "Other" deserving of special consideration in hiring and education? A half-Punjabi immigrant whose father owns 500 acres? A three-quarters Puerto Rican who just arrived in New York? A Korean-American son of an orthodontist? The African-American children of a Cabinet official?
The more the president appeals to his base in racial terms, the more his appointees identify themselves as members of a particular tribe, and the more political issues are framed by racial divisions, so all the more such racial obsession creates a backlash among the racially diverse American people.
America has largely moved beyond race. Tragically, our president and a host of his supportive special interests have not.