04/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Race Takes Center Stage in the National Debate

A year after the nation's first African-American President took office, "post racial" hasn't panned out. Though Barack Obama eschews ethnic tags, they're front row, center in the national debate.

A record 926 hate groups are operating in the U.S. today, the Southern Poverty Law center reports. Fulfilling the dream of some white supremacists, the civil rights group says, Obama's victory ushered in a race war. Fueled by tough economic times, anti-immigrant fervor is rampant.

At last weekend's Tea Party convention, it was proposed that a civics test be given before voting -- a throwback to the Jim Crow laws that kept Blacks from the polls. "People who could not spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House," maintained former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). Addressing the group, former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin (newly of Fox News), milked the underbelly -- her strong suit in the McCain campaign. Promulgating her trademark "us vs. them" rhetoric, she set the tone for the mid-term elections.

Even Haiti, with 270,000 deaths and counting, has been grist for the mill. Obama's prompt response to the earthquake, Rush Limbaugh claimed, was an attempt to "burnish his credentials" with minorities. Last spring, the talk radio personality called the Chief Executive "stupid" -- someone who probably "didn't get out of Harvard without affirmative action." CNN commentator Lou Dobbs and Fox's Glenn Beck headlined the "birther" movement, claiming that Obama was Kenyan-born. While the initial spike in death threats has abated, it is, disproportionately, ethnic in tone.

Ex-President Jimmy Carter, a son of the South, knows the syndrome well. Racism was a factor in the "you lie!" outburst during the President's congressional health care reform speech, he says -- and in much of the anti-Obama invective. Attacking the President as "an animal" or a "reincarnation of Adolf Hitler," is "unprecedented," he says, in need of repudiation on both sides of the aisle. While Republicans complain that opposition is equated with bigotry. The race card is a favorite of party chairman Michael Steele -- a rare man of color in the GOP hierarchy.

Words and images are powerful tools, expertly wielded by the White House. Releasing behind-the-scenes shots of the photogenic First Family undercuts the power of the paparazzi. Prejudice, however, has been harder to dislodge -- no matter the distance we've come. Electing an African-American President has re-positioned the U.S. in the eyes of the world, but is still a stumbling block here, at home.

Elaine Dutka is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and Time Magazine correspondent, currently freelancing in Los Angeles.