By JESSE WASHINGTON, AP National Writer
Is it because he's black?
The question of whether race fuels opposition to President Barack Obama has become one of the most divisive topics of the election. It is sowing anger and frustration among conservatives who are labeled racist simply for opposing Obama's policies and liberals who see no other explanation for such deep dislike of the president.
It is an accusation almost impossible to prove, yet it remains inseparable from the African-American experience. The idea, which seemed to die in 2008 when Obama became the first black president, is now rearing its head from college campuses to cable TV as the Democratic incumbent faces Mitt Romney, the white Republican challenger.
Four years after an election that inspired hopes of a post-racial future, there are signs that political passions are dragging us backward.
"We're at a tipping point," said Susan Glisson, director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. "But I don't know which way we're going to tip."
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Glisson knows that many conservatives disagree with Obama solely because of his policies. "But I am also quite certain that there are others who object to the president because of his race, because they have a fear of blacks that is embedded in our culture," she said.
Her conclusion is based on something called "implicit bias"- prejudices that people don't realize they have.
Studies show that due to longstanding negative stereotypes about African-Americans - which give such false impressions as most black people are dangerous, unintelligent or prefer welfare to work - many people harbor anti-black biases yet don't even know it. Such unconscious biases, the studies show, are present in people of all backgrounds, not just whites.
"Our history has created this unconscious bias," said Gail Christopher, vice president of program strategy for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has funded research on the subject. "Now we need to create safe places to discuss and educate people about unconscious bias, where we are not blaming and shaming them."
Those safe places generally do not include the political arena.
"Every time they say, `We want our country back,' I know what that means," Susan Bankston, a white Democratic National Convention delegate from Richmond, Texas, said at the gathering last week.
"You recognize it when every time the Republicans with their own convention refer to him by his first name, Barack Obama. He's President Barack Obama," said Patt Sanders, a delegate from Englewood, Calif., who is black.
Such logic inspired James Taranto, a conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, to write: "Every comment from a Republican can be translated, through a process of free association, to: 'We don't like black people."'
At their convention, Republicans made sure to show that the GOP does like black people, showcasing speeches by black and Latino conservatives. Two attendees who threw peanuts at a black camerawoman while commenting "this is what we feed animals" were swiftly ejected and denounced by GOP organizers.
On television, MSNBC host Chris Matthews unleashed an emotional rant at Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, accusing Romney of appealing to anti-black bias with welfare ads and a joke about claims that Obama is not an American citizen.
The actor Alec Baldwin simply tweeted: "If Obama was white, he'd be up by 17 points."
Said former President Bill Clinton in his speech to the Democratic convention: "Though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats."
All of this is maddening to people like Dan Joseph, a 33-year-old white conservative from northern Virginia.
Joseph is too young to remember past GOP appeals to racial bias, such as Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" rhetoric and George H.W. Bush's infamous Willie Horton ad. He believes Obama should have done more to promote economic growth.
Yet Joseph is often called a racist when he discusses politics. This inspired him to film a satirical video, "Bob is a Racist", which lays bare the frustration of many conservatives.
"Things have changed a lot since the 1980s," Joseph, a video journalist for a conservative media group, said in an interview. "I don't think food stamps equals blacks. We don't want people to be on food stamps, black or white."
So how many conservatives are truly biased against black people? "I don't know," Joseph said. "But it's hard to figure out when one side is assuming that it's everywhere."
It's not everywhere, acknowledges Courtland Milloy, a black columnist for The Washington Post. In a recent dispatch, Milloy described a widespread belief among some black Washingtonians that Republicans are using race against Obama.
"But there unquestionably is racism in some of the opposition," Milloy said in an interview. "And it should not just be up to black people to identify it and have to deal with it. This is an American problem. It's not just a black problem."
That can be difficult for folks who don't see a problem. Joseph, for one, doesn't buy the foundational idea of unconscious bias, that America remains afflicted by a racist past. "You get in the real world, and I just don't see it," he said.
For him, the bottom line is simple: "I know I'm not a racist, and the conservatives I know aren't racist."
The perils of potential offense can be everywhere. Glisson, director of the racial reconciliation institute, recalls a recent meeting with an unfamiliar group of people, including some African-Americans, and telling them about a good location for a professional retreat.
Then Glisson, who is white, mentioned that the location had excellent fried chicken.
She immediately sensed a change in the atmosphere: "They didn't know that I love fried chicken." It's a common occurrence: a statement that can be interpreted either way.
Evan Woodson, a black student at Oklahoma State University, often hears other black people call something racist that he sees as benign: "People seriously act as if whitey is still out to get them in 2012 in Stillwater, Okla. I don't think that's the case anymore."
Woodson does believe that the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow still create disadvantages for African-Americans. But when it comes to politics, he sees racial transgressions from both parties, such as Vice President Joe Biden telling black people that Republicans "want to put y'all back in chains."
"No matter how you cut it, politicians constantly seem to be accusing the other party of racism," Woodson said, and that prevents people from having honest conversations about actual racism. "People can't identify real racism anymore. They're lost in all the race-baiting."
Even when racism was a raw fact of American life, it wasn't always easy to identify. "Something is holding me back / I wonder, is it because I'm black?" Syl Johnson sang in the haunting 1970 soul classic, "Is It Because I'm Black?"
In an interview, Johnson, now 76, said his song was inspired by a twisted saga of land stolen from his family in 1930s Mississippi. He said the song remains relevant today because, he believes, Obama's blackness is indeed holding him back.
And yet: "Everyone that's white ain't no bigot," Johnson said. "Otherwise Obama never woulda become president."