Shelby Steele, an African American conservative scholar on race, has said that African American public figures can be boiled down to two distinct types based on their response to past racism: "bargainers" and "challengers." Challengers are those who say to society "you must prove to me that you are not racist" through affirmative action programs and other such benefits for minorities. Bargainers are those who say to society "I will make a deal with you. If you do not treat me in a way that is racist, then I will assume that you are not racist." Challengers include such people as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, while bargainers include people like Tiger Woods and Oprah.
Steele has used this division of African American society to explain the popularity of Barack Obama. Steele says that Barack is the ultimate bargainer, he assumes (in public, anyway) that white America is not racist anymore. This brings him a lot of gratitude and affection from whites who fear the accusation of racism. Moreover, his candidacy as an African American offers absolution at the end of the road for whites who feel guilt over the legacy of racism.
I think Steele's analysis certainly makes sense, though I don't think the bargainer effect accounts for all of Barack's popularity, just some of it. I do think though that this idea has not just worked as a macro effect for Barack's candidacy, but also as many small events that push Barack's popularity up. The nature of Barack's background means that there will be many comments that come across as racist or bigoted whether intended (as with of the Tennessee GOP ) or not (as with poor Joe Biden). Naturally these comments will be pounced upon by the national media, with its 24 hour news-hungry cable networks. Commentators analyze and dissect them and some end up interpreting them in the worst possible light.
This has been great for Obama so far in the primary and will continue to be great for him in the general. Why? Because Barack, bargainer such that he is, will always be able to appear reasonable and above the fray responding to these comments, as others have already done the attacking. Even those who don't see the racism in relatively racist comments will look to Barack and say "ah see, Barack is a reasonable guy, at least, he is not going over board here." This constantly feeds him with good press. It makes him simultaneously look like a victim and also a strong person, and it makes whites who are guilty about racism more likely to vote for him.
I think Karl Rove recognized this when he warned the GOP to not use "Hussein" or use overtly racist tactics against Obama. Is America still susceptible to racism? Sure. But not if they are aware that that appeal is being made to them. How many people do you know who might say something questionably racist, but if anyone calls them out on it they will strenuously deny it with all the evidence they have at their disposal? That is the danger for Republicans who think about using racist tactics against Obama.
Is Barack's campaign feeding this monster? I think they are a little bit, Jon thinks a lot. But mostly they don't need to do anything with it since it's such a natural dynamic as the race is set up.
Is it bad that race is still a motivating factor in our elections? Yes. But I, for one, would appreciate the irony of it actually working in favor of an African American candidate.