Election 2012 and the Deep Racial Divide

From John Sununu's Colin Powell swipe to grim polls about racism, it's clear that hope and change is so 2008.

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Besides a weakness for the high life, Sununu also has a penchant for race-baiting and Birtherism. He called the president "lazy" in an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell and was recorded just a few months ago saying that Obama needed to "learn how be an American." (It's a curious statement, considering that Sununu himself is only a naturalized citizen of the U.S. -- born in Cuba to parents of Palestinian descent.)

Sununu even doubled down on his initial allegations in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, claiming that President Obama "has created more racial division than any administration in history." Though these comments seem extreme, they express a sentiment that has become mainstream in conservative political circles and is having real effects.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that Romney enjoys the support of white males over President Obama by a margin of 2-to-1: 65 percent to 32 percent. In 2008 Obama lost the white-male vote by 16 points, based on exit polls, which means that his lack of support among white men has doubled.

And among working-class whites without college degrees, President Obama trails Romney 58 percent to 35 percent. Why does it matter? White males made up 36 percent of the total electorate in the last presidential contest, and whites in general made up 74 percent of all voters.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, told CBS News that many white American males "believe the economic policies of Democrats have benefited somebody else -- not them. Women, minorities, interest groups. They don't feel Democrats have championed the interests of white-male voters in modern times as they did in the days of Roosevelt and Truman."

So if you're Romney, dedicated to using nostalgic references that cast you as Ronald Reagan defeating one-term President Jimmy "Barack" Carter, then manipulating white Americans to vote along racial lines is a winning strategy. Why would surrogates like Sununu knowingly sow the seeds of racial animus and divisiveness? The answer can be found in the outcome.

Romney maintains his lead among white voters, even though nearly 50 percent of them believe that he would do more to favor the wealthy than the poor and middle class. And according to a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press, in the past four years the number of Americans who express explicit anti-black attitudes has increased from 48 percent in 2008 to 51 percent today. Implicit racial bias -- the kind that people may neither admit nor realize they harbor -- increased sharply from 49 percent to 56 percent. Survey respondents used Sununu's word, "lazy," and other words, like "violent," to describe African Americans and Hispanics.

It doesn't take a rigorous education in America's racialized political history to see that propaganda like that used by Sununu has a direct effect on how the wider populace perceives President Obama -- and black people in general. Andrew Sullivan, a columnist at the Daily Beast, recently called this phenomenon a cold civil war and explained that it's been slowly brewing since Obama took office.

The AP report also revealed that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express explicit racial prejudice, by a margin of 79 percent to 32 percent. Indeed, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a white Republican and Powell's former chief of staff, told MSNBC's Ed Schultz last week that the GOP is "full of racists."

Party leaders -- and campaign officials -- can neither ignore these survey results nor deny any responsibility for having created them. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Donald Trump, who race-bait to promote their own personal, partisan agendas, Sununu is a chairman of the Romney presidential campaign. His behavior can be seen only as an explicit strategy. Even later, when Sununu released a statement clarifying his ill-conceived words, there remained no apology -- and not a word, at all, from Romney himself.