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Senior Correspondent

Contrary to the race-less world of some network programs, we have not created the post-racial society some progressives choose to believe. The notion is convenient, even cathartic for those anxious to put this country’s racial past behind it.

Watching Republican candidates trying to “out seg” (an old term employed by southern politicians trying to whip up anti-Black sentiment among white voters) each other in South Carolina reflects a party still enthralled by past southern glory. A post-racial society does not serve the political interests of major elements within the GOP. This is sad commentary but accurate nonetheless.

Race, the eternal bugaboo in American life and politics, has insinuated itself into the current campaign, thanks to at least three of the Republican contenders for the nomination. It may be safe to say it will become a key stratagem through November. This was no surprise. It was just a matter of which candidate, or candidates, would decide to adopt the most aggressive approach to advance his candidacy. If the muck is already knee deep, wait until the campaign really hits the heart of the old confederacy.

Of the three candidates thus far to inject race into the campaign, it was Newt Gingrich, the consummate bloviator in all things, who stepped squarely into the breach during a highly public exchange with Juan Williams — a FOX news contributor and conservative African American journalist. The anticipated positive feedback from the largely white audience only fueled Newt’s competitive juices. He was in an old, but familiar, element. The day following the much-ballyhooed exchange, a woman approached Gingrich during a town hall meeting to thank him for “putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place.”

Gingrich could have taken the opportunity to say, “it was not a matter of putting Mr. Williams in his place as much as it was an attempt to frame the issues in a larger context”, or something to that effect. No, he reveled in the attention and thanked the woman for her support. Imagine in 2012, people feeling the need to “put others in their place.” What exactly does this mean?

Were Gingrich fortunate enough to win, or place among the top three finishers in the South Carolina primary, smart money says Romney may outdistance him for the nomination as the election cycle elongates. Race as an issue for the GOP in this election will transcend Gingrich, Santorum, and Ron Paul.

Romney, if he is the eventual nominee, and the GOP cannot win in November against President Barack Obama without playing the race card. Exploiting racial fears is coded into the DNA of the GOP’s campaign strategy. It has been for practically a century. (Read the first hundred pages of “White Protestant Nation — The Rise of the American Conservative Movement” by Allan Lichtman.)

Romney will wade into the troubled waters of race employing less incendiary rhetoric than the ever pompous and supremely self-confident Gingrich.

Romney’s intent, however, will be equally as divisive and dangerous: exploit the racial fears and jealousies of poor and less educated whites about an alleged symbiotic relationship between blacks and the federal government. At the expense of whites — naturally. While preposterous on its face, “this is a classic, right-wing, race based argument in a new suit” suggests Charles Blow of The New York Times. It is not a new suit, rather a different suit than that worn by previous race-baiters vying for the GOP presidential nomination over the past three decades.

Romney will be as comfortable navigating this explosive terrain as Republicans before him. He is already sensitive to the impact his personal wealth and his 15 percent tax rate will have on his standing among independents, liberals, and many who identify with the 99 percent. He will have to be prepared to deflect their criticisms while attacking constituencies important to Obama’s reelection.

A Gingrichian-style frontal assault on African Americans ill suits Romney, but inveighing with a feigned sense of indignation against those who allegedly “support big government” rather than valuing private initiative and responsibility strengthens his candidacy against Obama in the South, the Southwest and the Midwest. We know it’s coming. The targets are low-to-middle-income whites willing to blame an assumed alliance between a black president and African Americans that leaves them behind.

Truth will be in short supply but the politics are priceless. Add the politics of envy to God and guns with this segment of the electorate and the GOP feels confident they can pull this one out of the bag. That is a page in their playbook.

Romney and the numerous super PACs that will rush to support his candidacy will take this message to several swing states throughout the campaign: Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas and rural areas where FOX news provides the daily “intelligent” feed. An anchor belief among these rural populations is that African Americans and other groups of color must remain below them on the social and income scale. Moreover, should that equation change, as they believe it has under Obama, only by having a Republican in the White House can society be restored to its “rightful balance.”

Romney may be the GOP’s standard-bearer but the media blitz financed by millions in super PAC money supporting him will help make the case.

The GOP prefers to keep this segment of their base — blue collar, mainly white men — ill-informed. The more informed this electorate is, the greater the likelihood they will seek higher quality candidates while holding them accountable. The leader of a local union in South Carolina recently validated this point during a nationally televised interview.

The GOP loathes these whites-turned-Republicans as much as they loathe Democrats. The sad truth is, GOP success in many red states is contingent upon a candidate’s ability to persuade voters to vote against their better interests. Race is a part of the approach.

There is an unspoken code when “race-baiting” occurs in a group setting: never call out or differ publicly with the perpetrator. Stare silently, look at your feet, or organize whatever is in front of you. Your unwillingness to differ publicly amounts to a tacit approval of the approach and the content of a frequently flawed and prejudicial message. This was the scene at the Republican debate that night in South Carolina. To be fair, this approach is not limited to Republicans. They are, however, unapologetic regarding the use of racially inflammatory rhetoric as a campaign strategy. Local and national media are often complicit.

Democrats cannot be held completely harmless because they are unwillingly to endure the blowback from those invested in blaming minorities and the first black president for the ills visited by every Republican president since Ronald Reagan. Journalists interviewing conservative Republicans rarely follow up when fact-less assertions are made for fear of being accused their interview tactics were “overly aggressive.”

Southern white males, for example, are unwilling to hold accountable a Republican-controlled House perfectly prepared to sacrifice the interests of poor whites at the altar of political expediency. The politics of “victimhood” exploits ignorance, racist theology, and a fear of changing demographics in America. No, a post-racial America does not serve the interests of the GOP.

As the Romney campaign begins to roll forward, it, too, will employ racially charged rhetoric that scapegoats African Americans, Latinos, the unemployed by suggesting resources misallocated to them are more productively absorbed by the phantom “job creators.” This will sound good but it is untrue. That, however, will not matter. Eliminating the food stamp program, cutting funds to education, cutting taxes for the rich, and further polluting the environment harms the very white populations who believe they are putting minorities off the federal rolls.

These poor and near-poor white voters may be unaware that it was President G.W. Bush that eased eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. “The number of people using the program (mainly white), now at its peak, began rising with the recession in 2007, and continued through four of the toughest years ever faced by the poor and near poor in modern history.”

How many in that South Carolina audience that night understood that Gringrich’s diatribe against the “insufficient work ethic of Black Americans” applied to them as well? Did they not understand those conservatives’ assaults against the expanded food stamp program, extended unemployment benefits, funding for public schools, programs for teen pregnancies did not exclude them? Their standing ovation for someone who holds them equally in contempt is sad commentary for people reduced by Gingrich to race pride.

The very government the GOP vows to downsize to better serve these rural communities with more jobs is the very government whose size protects the interests of the Republican Party and the 1 percent. That is the pernicious hypocrisy perpetuated by every Republican president since Ronald Reagan.

Race as an issue always resonates in national elections and will for the foreseeable future. The GOP is invested in it.

Whoever ultimately becomes the Republican nominee, he will try to stir up racial animosity and then link that animus to the President. We cannot hope his audiences will see through the transparent and tawdry politics behind it. Welcome to the GOP’s side of the 2012 election.

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