The race card is creased and tattered now, its flashy symbols worn and faint. Even in Mississippi and Louisiana, it doesn't play like it used to.




Using time-honored tactics to try to hold onto congressional seats in those states, Republicans attempted to tie white Democratic candidates to Barack Obama and his controversial former minister, Jeremiah Wright. It didn't work. The Democrats won.




Last week's loss in Mississippi was especially disillusioning for partisans, since that district, near Memphis, has been steadfastly Republican for more than a decade. GOP candidate Greg Davis ran ads saying that Obama had "endorsed" Davis' Democratic rival, Travis Childers &

a tactic meant to signal that Childers was the worst sort of white Mississippian. Childers beat Davis by eight points.




It was no doubt helpful to his candidacy that Childers is an anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat. It also helped that black Mississippians were angered enough by the ads that they turned out in unexpectedly high numbers. Still, even with reliable black support, white Southern Democrats like Childers had become all but extinct in recent years as Republicans played their so-called Southern strategy, whipping up resentment among whites still uncomfortable with the changes wrought by the civil rights movement.




Lyndon Johnson, the consummate Southern politician, was right when, after he had successfully pushed for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he reportedly said: "It is an important gain. But I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."




It's certainly not true that all &

or even most &

Republicans are racists. But it is true that the party will do whatever it takes to win, no matter how dishonorable or ugly.




The late Lee Atwater, the GOP political consultant who polished the Southern strategy to a vicious sheen, apologized on his death bed for the Willie Horton ads &

the ones that linked a black rapist with Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Atwater's 11th-hour repentance didn't deter his successors. Republican political strategists kept waving the race card for the most mundane of reasons: It worked.




But the South, like the rest of the nation, is changing rapidly; the old social codes are being rewritten, and the old resentments are withering away. White politicians can no longer rely on racially coded messages and crude stereotypes to scare voters into supporting them. Though former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, he came within — percentage points &

a real breakthrough for a black candidate.




That hardly means racism is dead. It surely is not. Indeed, a campaign featuring Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee is likely to bring to public view some of the most wretched stereotypes and racist ideas that have surfaced since the Ku Klux Klan met in full regalia on Georgia's Stone Mountain.




Already, suburban Atlanta bar owner Mike Norman has peddled T-shirts comparing Obama to a monkey, the cartoon character "Curious George." And in a few primary contests, white voters openly expressed their prejudices against a black candidate. According to The Washington Post, a white Pennsylvania voter was blunt when she told Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and an Obama volunteer, why she would not vote for him: "White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people."




There are black Americans, too, who are eager to play the race card, some of them perhaps afraid that an Obama victory would undermine their long-held conviction that this nation remains unrepentantly racist. Perhaps that's why the Rev. Wright launched a race-baiting diatribe shortly before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries: He, too, wants to hold onto old prejudices.




Yet neither the Normans nor the Wrights can revive an old game that is fast losing its appeal. The race card no longer guarantees a winning hand, even in Mississippi.




is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.