WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of the off-year elections, the New York Times published a story about how black mayors had been elected in such cities as Seattle and Minneapolis in spite of the fact that black voters made up a small share of the electorate. The heartwarming inference you might draw is that this means voters are growing colorblind in many places if not in New York, where Mayor David Dinkins received only 23 percent of the white vote to go with 95 percent of the black vote.
But that inference is dead wrong. The hard truth is that blacks usually can be elected in one of two situations -- first, in cities such as Newark or Detroit in which blacks make up a majority or close to a majority of the electorate or, second, when they make up only a small and largely invisible share, meaning under 15 percent.
Anyone who believes that racial polarization has declined substantially in American politics is kidding himself. On the contrary, it has become increasingly clear that there has been a resurgence of racial factors in politics as those with firsthand memories of the civil rights movement -- and the reasons it was needed -- die off.
The experience of David Dinkins was not different from what other black politicians have been through in recent years. The fact that he could get only 23 percent of white votes as an incumbent running in a devoutly liberal city was a reflection of the kind of growing polarization that is showing up in many elections.
The problem for black candidates is shared by white liberals, mostly Democrats, in many jurisdictions. In the South, for example, it has become almost axiomatic that Democrats running for governor or president or the Senate find it easier to win in states with smaller black populations.
Since blacks usually split 9-to-1 Democratic, that rule would seem to defy logic because it means that in states such as South Carolina or Mississippi the Democrat starts out with such a base of black support he or she needs only 30 percent to 35 percent of white voters. In practice, however, it is easier for Democrats to win in states where they need more than 40 percent of the white vote -- Arkansas or Tennessee, for instance -- because the black vote is less than 15 percent of the total.
The problem in several of these states -- Alabama, for instance -- is that the Democratic Party has become identified as "the black party" in the perceptions of many whites who don't want to be part of that identification.
A similar pattern that seemed to deny racism was obvious in the primaries of 1984 and 1988 when Jesse Jackson was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Jackson's support among white liberals was consistently higher where there were smaller black populations and race was not an issue in the dialogue every day.
So the first rule seems to be that voting is less racially polarized in cities or states with fewer blacks and more polarized where they make up 25 percent of the vote or more.
In some cases, this is a function of economic concerns. With more workers worried about their jobs, there is predictable resistance to others seen as competing with them. And there is specific anger among whites about affirmative action programs, the issue Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina used so effectively in fighting off a challenge in 1990 from a black Democrat, Harvey Gantt.
In the big cities, however, the defining issue is crime, which is seen increasingly in racial terms because although most of the victims are black people, so are most of the perpetrators in those communities. That crime issue was clearly the reason that so many whites with long histories of voting Democratic, including more than two-thirds of Jewish voters, abandoned Dinkins for Republican Rudolph Giuliani.
It would be an exaggeration to argue that "racism" alone is what sank Dinkins. The fact is that the Democratic mayor had a weak record on so many issues that there were all kinds of reasons to vote against him without race entering the equation.
But if anyone imagines the voters are colorblind because of what happened in Seattle or Minneapolis, they should look at the real world even if the story is not so heartwarming.