The answer is more complicated than the question. To suggest that racism plays no role would be naive, but there are other factors that should not be ignored. One thing is certain -- merely looking at changing poll numbers grossly oversimplifies these issues.
First, America is in the middle of a major cultural, ethnic and economic shift. Like it or not, our country is changing and we don't have much control over those changes on an individual level. Change -- even change you want or need -- can be scary. Some articulate these fears by saying: "I don't recognize my own country." So while racism is an ingredient, the underlying emotion -- as with all "isms" -- is fear.
Second, the anger that was simmering earlier this year when Americans had to focus on their personal survival, has now reached a boiling point. We've seen big banks, the auto industry and Wall Street get bailed out. CEO's at the top faced no real consequences, made no real sacrifices (still flying on private jets and meeting in Jackson Hole). Working people had to foot the bill and were forced to make tough choices like whether to repair the car that takes them to work or fix their child's teeth. A majority of Americans recognize that this is a situation President Obama inherited. The stimulus plan is starting to turn things around, but people are still angry so he bears the brunt of it.
Third, the right-wing (no longer a conspiracy) spin machine is cranked into high gear as part of a broad effort to discredit a Democratic president. We've seen this movie before: stall the agenda (healthcare = waterloo), lay as much blame on the Democrats as possible while abdicating any responsibility, attack the president's allies, friends and employees; spread lies as if they were true; and deny the office the respect it deserves. Fueling the fires of hate are none other than Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
Lastly, there is a generational component. Each generation has had a different experience of racism, having seen great advances made, but also a widening socio-economic divide for blacks as well as whites. President Carter is part of a generation that lived through profound change in race relations in our country. How could growing up under Jim Crow not have an impact on one's thinking? Just as coming of age in the 1980's when it was fairly rare to be mixed race has had a completely different impact on my own thinking. Our hope lies with the younger generation of voters under 30 who are more ethnically diverse and see themselves as more multicultural -- even global. Last year, for the first time in our nation's history, these younger voters came out in larger numbers than seniors did. We need to hear their voices now.