I agree with Jonathan Chait that many liberals immediately respond to "any potential racial signal with a charge of racism." This is dangerous because legitimate accusations of racism are almost always dismissed or invalidated by false charges. On the flip side, many conservatives (and Americans, generally) deny the political efficacy of white racial resentment, and how it empowers Republican politics.
I think Chait is right to point out that there is a distinction between bigoted hatred of black people and other minorities (white racism and white supremacy) and "belief systems that are connected below the surface to racial divisions" (white racial resentment or white populism). It's not simply a matter of semantics, though some might argue that racism and racial resentment lead to the same political outcomes.
Americans politics are wrought by race and it's difficult for both conservatives and liberals to admit. Bigoted racism still exists but it exists much more on the fringe; racial resentment and racial bias are more prominent and pronounced. The young white woman who crosses the street after noticing my presence and clutches her purse is not a racist bigot (or at least, this action is not enough to justify the accusation); however, it's fair to suggest that she suffers from some level of implicit racial bias or prejudice. (This has happened to me numerous times and, admittedly, I don't exactly conform to the intimidating urban black male stereotype.)
Nor do I believe that Mitt Romney is a racist, a charge that he has faced during his presidential campaign. I suspect, however, that he exploits white racism and white racial resentment for political gain (it's a staple tactic of Republican politics).
But as we're witnessing in Maryland, exploiting white racial resentment isn't the only form of racial demagoguery. A few months ago, state Del. Pat McDonough claimed that Baltimore's Inner Harbor was being terrorized by "black youth mobs." Now, McDonough is attempting to repackage himself as a champion of the black community with his opposition to the Maryland Dream Act, which would provide in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants. McDonough is regularly derided as a racist bigot and xenophobe. I disagree with everything that comes out of McDonough's mouth, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as to call him a racist bigot; his major point of contention seems to be with illegal immigration, not immigrants more generally.
That said, McDonough is certainly a racial demagogue. His false claim that the Dream Act would hurt the black community is proof of it. As McDonough has claimed recently, "the so-called Dream Act would displace available slots at Baltimore city’s community college from legal city residents."
I'm not sure how to make sense of McDonough's claim or his opposition to the Dream Act, generally. Maryland has the most stringent rules of the 11 states that have some form of in-state tuition for illegal-immigrant students. To even qualify, students must graduate from a Maryland high school and their parents must file taxes. Should the children of families paying state taxes be denied in-state tuition for higher education? McDonough portrays himself as a diligent advocate for hard-working Maryland taxpayers, but he's abdicating his duties here. If the state accepts taxes paid for and revenues generated by undocumented immigrant taxpayers, isn't the state obligated to afford them access to publicly supported resources?
McDonough's claim that the Dream Act would "displace" black students is unfounded and disingenuous. The Dream Act requires eligible undocumented students to attend community college for at least two years. Baltimore City Community College recently came off of probation and its enrollment had been dwindling for years before rebounding in a few critical degree programs. Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial assistance, which means education will remain more affordable and attainable for poor and low-income African Americans compared to undocumented students, both for community college and four-year university.
Republicans have used "displacement" rhetoric in support of opposing affirmative action for years, so it's interesting to see the ploy used as a wedge between African Americans and immigrant groups. The language of "undeserving" individuals being handed a perceived advantage is quite palpable in American politics, especially when a racial or "otherness" dimension is added. I hope the tactic fails this fall.