The real force behind America's racial polarization isn't racism. It's politics.
With the midterm elections (mostly) behind us, it's worth revisiting Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) controversial comments about racism and President Obama's unpopularity. In the midst of an uphill battle in which Obama's low approval numbers were dragging her campaign down, Landrieu said, "The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans."
Landrieu probably won't be in the Senate next year. The Louisiana Senate runoff is one of the few races still outstanding, and she's likely to lose. (At least national Democrats seemed to think so, though they appear to be having second thoughts now.)
But Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first African-American senator elected from the Deep South since Reconstruction, will be. And he was mostly elected by white, conservative Southern voters.
White conservatives also elected two black Republicans, Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas, to the House.
These same Tea Party voters who are said to dislike the president because he is black are clamoring for Ben Carson to run for president. Carson is also black.
It was these overwhelmingly white conservatives who propelled Herman Cain, another African-American presidential candidate, to the top of the polls. Cain briefly led among Republicans both nationally and in Iowa, home of the first caucuses.
So is all the fuss about Obama really over race? (To be fair to Landrieu, she did not claim it was only about race, noting that the "No. 1" reason voters in Louisiana disapproved of Obama was his moratorium on offshore drilling that followed the 2010 BP oil spill.)
In 2014, the same South that remains "more of a conservative place," as Landrieu put it, would vote for senators like Scott and nonwhite governors like South Carolina's Nikki Haley and Louisiana's own Bobby Jindal.
Things have changed from when Strom Thurmond was a segregationist or even when David Duke was a significant player in Louisiana politics in the 1990s.
Speaking of the 1990s, Bill Clinton was every bit as unpopular among conservatives as Obama is today. Had Colin Powell run and won the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, those conservatives would have voted to make him the first black president of the United States, sending Clinton back to Arkansas.
In 2016, these conservatives would gladly vote for Carson or Condoleezza Rice over Hillary Clinton or any other white liberal Democrat.
Does that mean there is no racism on the right? Of course not. But it does mean that the color of a candidate's party (red or blue) matters much more to voters than the color of a candidate's skin.
To be sure, there are many factors that contribute to racial polarization. Conservatives generally view racism as racial hatred, or at the very least treating people as members of racial groups rather than individuals. Liberals are more likely to see racism as preserving institutional barriers to minority progress, whether motivated by animus or not.
Because the Republican electorate is so white, many of its voters are far removed from the experiences of blacks and Latinos. That can't help but influence how the two parties see race. Also, among some conservatives, it is almost a point of pride to not be cowed by charges of racism. This can be a virtue when such charges are false, but it can also lead to a lack of empathy or sensitivity.
But much of the racial polarization in the country is itself a product of intense political polarization. Obama is the first black president, but he is also almost exclusively the product of blue America (despite assurances to the contrary in the 2004 speech that first set him on a path to the White House).
Political disagreements are becoming racial disagreements. In Mississippi in 2012, Mitt Romney won 89 percent of the white vote. Obama carried 96 percent of black voters. Thus you can know with something approaching 90 percent confidence that your white neighbor voted Republican and your black neighbor voted Democratic. And if you feel deep hostility toward people on the other side of the political divide, it can easily bleed into racial hostility, too.
White conservatives, in particular, know that most people of color vote for Democrats. That is true even in states where the vote is less polarized along racial lines — and where the history is less indelibly tied to Jim Crow — than Mississippi.
Just as dismissive liberal comments about religion would be less common if Jim Wallis was more representative of evangelical politics than James Dobson, some conservative tone-deafness on race springs from the heavy overlap between black America and blue America.
But strong white conservative support for minority conservatives — and occasional racist remarks directed by liberals against conservative minorities — suggests political considerations ultimately trump racial ones.