Strangely enough, the fact that we have a president who happens to be a black man has not ended the discussion of race in America despite that president's high-minded 'post-racial' attitude on the subject.
That was sarcasm, yes.
Obviously, a black president is going to guarantee that race is very much on everyone's minds for the four-to-eight years of the Obama Administration. That would be true even if that president's name were 'Barry Huntley Owens' instead of 'Barack Hussein Obama.' The first black president is a big deal, and people of all kinds and all racial attitudes are going to be talking about race constantly as a result. Some of this may be good and some of it may be bad, but it's all unavoidable. Anyone who actually believes a bi-racial president with an African father and a lifetime steeped in white American culture magically brings on an instant sea change in American racial politics is really, really naive. High minded post-racial rhetoric is good and a post-racial world is a worthy goal, but we're a long way from it.
That said, while dirty racial politics is to be expected and exacerbated under the current conditions, we don't have to like it. One of the constant ploys from the right is the desire to deliberately cast the left as racist, as devoted to stirring up racial hatred for political purposes, or both. One of the constant ploys from the left is to repeatedly bring up individual examples of racists on the right in an attempt to paint all conservatives with this brush. Both of these moves are 'politics as usual'... which means each side considers their own activities to be entirely above reproach and the other side's to be vicious and inhuman.
The fact is that both sides' attacks on the other tend to be more inaccurate than accurate. Today, here and now, racists are more likely to be Republican than Democrat because the 'traditional American values' championed in many red states include unfortunate racist legacies. However, President George W. Bush (this may be the only time you ever see me say anything good about the man, so keep reading) advocated amnesty for undocumented immigrants as part of his flawed immigration reform package. He was defeated by a bi-partisan hue and cry of aggressive nativism with both conscious and unconscious racist implications. Moderate and conservative Democrats are as guilty of such pandering as Republicans, and Hillary Clinton specifically attacked other candidates for the Democratic nomination who supported Bush's amnesty and immigration reform package. The locales in which the attack was given suggest a deliberate pandering to nativist white voters. Racism is a two-party problem.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between the approaches of the mouthpieces of both sides of the left-right debate to racism. Liberal writers nearly all agree that racism is a genuine problem. Conservative writers dismiss it as an occasional aberration. Liberals believe that action taken to ameliorate the effects of racism and to protect individual civil rights is desirable and necessary in a free society, while conservatives dismiss such action as unnecessary or attack such protections as unfairly depriving whites. The debate over Sonia Sotamayor's confirmation, the publicity surrounding the overturning of the case brought most prominently into the press by her nomination, and many of the absolutely moronic attacks on her person and character by conservatives included baldly ugly racist overtones that can't be dismissed or denied and these aspects were not disavowed by many (if any) conservatives.
I have been, and will continue to be, critical of the Democratic Party's approach to civil rights issues. I believe that treating black issues, Hispanic issues, women's issues, and LGBT issues as separate and independent agendas is fundamentally counterproductive. If the goal is increased protection of individual rights, then the narrow focus this approch creates is potentially disastrous. Civil rights issues are civil rights issues, and one coherent approach to individual civil rights is the only way to attack the problem. However, liberal Democrats are correct in acknowledging that there is a problem and seeking to take action to address it.
The single biggest problem (which conservatives recognize, though they support and perpetuate the problem rather than attacking it boldly) is the economic problem. Institutional racism is frequently unconscious, due to the simple fact that disproportionate numbers of black and Latino Americans are poor and that our society has gone out of its way (especially in the last twenty-five years) to stigmatize poverty and scapegoat the poor. Conservative 'reforms' intended to change the way the government address poverty have exacerbated the problems of the inner city. The Randian ethic of prosperity/virtue vs poverty/sin embraced (ironically) by both secular libertarians and Christian conservatives is tremendously damaging to minority Americans and serves to buttress institutional racism that has been slow to die.
In one sense, liberals are to blame. In 1865, the Republican government that freed the slaves decided against compensating freed slaves in order to attempt to preserve the support of pro-Union conservatives in slave states. This perpetuated a huge inequity between black and white Americans that has never been addressed properly since and may be impossible to fully rectify now.
However, it is conservatives who argue against even trying.