(The Root) — Amid all of the celebration that took place in progressive circles following the president's re-election, there was a less jubilant reaction in some corners of the nation. There were so many racist messages tweeted after the president's win that analysts started treating it as a competition. Want to know which states had the highest concentration of racist tweets? See the winners here.
While some outlets focused on seeking punishment and retribution against those who sent racist social media messages, such as the woman who posted a Facebook message reading, "Another 4 years of this [n-word] … Maybe he will get assassinated this term," few have looked at how such racist language may actually end up helping the president advance his agenda in a second term.
According to a recent poll, the number of white Americans holding anti-black attitudes has increased since President Obama took office. Yet it can be argued that while racist attitudes have increased, the number of Americans who believe racism is real has decreased.
Throughout much of the president's first term conservatives balked at suggestions that some criticism of the president might be race-based, with a growing number of them arguing that "racist" or "racism" were simply terms overused to scare white Americans from lodging legitimate criticism. On the conservative site Free Republic, an article devoted to this topic opens with, "Once upon a time racism used to be relatively easy to pin down. It was segregated lunch counters and slave ships, it was nooses and chains, it was the legal oppression of a group of people on account of the color of their skin. Then racism stopped being a set of laws and became an abstraction, first a set of attitudes and then a set of attitudes implying another set of attitudes."
Notorious conservative pot stirrer Ann Coulter argued that white Americans would only vote for Obama out of fear of being inaccurately labeled racist. In her new book Mugged, she argues that all real racism died after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and that there are virtually no real racists in existence anymore. Meanwhile, Fox News host Sean Hannity blamed the "race card" as an effective political tool used by liberals to accuse conservatives of racism. In dismissing a segment on MSNBC about coded racial language in politics, controversial conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh replied, "You know what we call people obsessed with race? Racists. Really what we have here is blatant bigotry and racism on this network of holier-than-thou liberals."
So many pieces have been written in recent years about the danger of overusing the "r-words" — racist or racism — that a Google search of "the word racist is overused" produces more than 800,000 results. Not all of these articles are the work of conservatives.
Brande Victorian, a writer for the African-American women's site Madame Noire, also challenged Americans to be more selective in using "the r-word" so that we don't continue to lessen its impact. The point Victorian makes is that in efforts to police incidents of subtle racism (those that are not blatant and easy to pinpoint), at times we have become overly sensitive and spotted racism where it may not truly exist. To Victorian's point, as a result we have given fuel to the Coulters, Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world to accuse us of crying wolf. There they go again crying racism where it doesn't exist, one can imagine them saying.
What this wave of racist postelection tweets has done is knock the wind right out of the sails of the argument that blatant racism is extinct. When there was just a handful of blatantly racist incidents here and there, such as the man who showed up wearing a racist T-shirt to a Romney rally, conservatives could claim he was one knucklehead, and didn't represent a consensus. But these tweets are evidence that blatant racism is alive and well within conservative circles. They undermine the argument that none of the president's opposition — particularly from Southern elected officials — has anything to do with race.
Of course these social media messages don't prove that all of his opponents are fueled by racism. But they sure do lend credibility to the idea that more of his criticism and opposition is fueled by racism than many conservatives care to admit. This proof will only strengthen the president's standing as he prepares for battle over the looming fiscal cliff and a host of other issues.
It's worth noting that polls have shown a clear racial divide in how black and white Americans view racism today. According to Newsweek/The Daily Beast, "Seventy percent of whites, for example, think that blacks have an equal shot at affordable housing; only 35 percent of blacks say the same. Seventy percent of whites believe that the two races receive equal treatment in the job market; a mere 25 percent of blacks concur. And while more than 80 percent of white people say the cops and courts usually or always treat blacks the same as whites, that number doesn't even clear 50 percent among African-Americans. It's no wonder, then, that blacks are twice as likely as whites (82 percent versus 38 percent) to say that race played a role in the shooting of Trayvon Martin."
Perhaps the racism on display in social media after the first black president won a second term will help awaken a number of Americans to the fact that racism is very much alive and well. Once enough Americans make peace with that fact, perhaps the first black president will finally feel more empowered to tackle issues of racial inequality in housing, unemployment and elsewhere in a second term.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.