At first glance, the media firestorm over Touré, an MSNBC commentator who used the the n-word to describe Mitt Romney’s campaign tactics against President Obama, is just the latest political controversy to generate heat but little light.

Yet Touré’s blunt assessment of Romney’s “ni**erization” of Obama, and the sanctimonious outrage it triggered, illustrated a disturbing trend in American politics: white conservatives have hijacked the debate on race in America.

The highly toxic attempt to seize the racial high ground has stifled the halting attempts at meaningful dialogue and has marginalized critics of a society still heavily weighted toward whites. It’s also misdirected the anger of disaffected whites, who now believe they are the victims of a power structure commanded by the nation’s first black president.

On MSNBC’s The Cycle, Touré powerfully critiqued how Romney – by framing Obama’s administration as “angry” and “divisive,” and favoring handouts over work – has demonized the president to  energize the GOP’s white base.

Romney uses  ”racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man,” Touré told his three co-hosts. “I don’t say it lightly … but this is ni**erization … you are like the scary black man who [whites have] been trained to fear.”

Bloggers and conservative media critics exploded in outrage, demanding Touré’s ouster, and Romney’s campaign reportedly complained to MSNBC. Touré, under pressure, apologized on the air the next day.

The firestorm, however, obscured the bigger picture: Romney and the Republicans are a majority white party struggling to survive in a nation whose white population is shrinking. Recent polls show nine out of ten self-identified Republicans are white, yet within the next 20 years, whites will fall behind Latinos – a core constituency for Democrats – as the nation’s new minority population.

Coded racial appeals have always been in the GOP toolbox – think Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” Reagan’s “welfare queens,” and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad – but they’ve become more useful with unemployment at eight percent, a growing Latino population and a black man in the White House.

Romney – sometimes beneath a banner reading, “Obama Isn’t Working” — consistently claims the president wants to trade hard-earned success for an entitlement state, and didn’t speak up when surrogates like former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu claimed Obama “needs to learn what it means to be an American.”  Yet when Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to a mostly black audience, said a Romney administration would unshackle Wall Street and “put y’all back in chains,” apoplectic Romney aides demanded an apology.

White critics of Romney’s wink-and-nudge strategy have come under fire, but the right-wing noise machine – including Fox News and web sites like The Daily Caller and GlennBeck.com – take things to a new level when an African-American critic calls them out. As Romney aides dialed up the heat on MSNBC, The Daily Caller blasted Touré for “sub-moronic race-baiting,” while a convoluted, connect-the-dots blog post on Breitbart.com’s Big Journalism accused him of playing “the Hitler card.”

The toxic, intellectually dishonest, blacks-are-the-new-racists strategy is leaching from politics into society at large, illustrated by a new joint Tufts University-Harvard Business School survey, “Whites See Racism as a Zero-sum Game that They Are Now Losing.” The survey shows more than 60 percent of whites now believe they are victims of racial discrimination, despite having far better outcomes than blacks in basic quality-of-life areas like income, housing and education.

In one of his final appearances, the late Andrew Breitbart – the racial provocateur behind the Shirley Sherrod firing – declared war on the old white-black dynamic. In February, he told a gathering of conservatives that 2012 would be a  “dog whistle election,” with Obama’s advocates ready to declare racism at every turn  and conservatives ready to attack.

Rather than play defense against liberals, he said, “we’re gonna listen to every word that comes out of your mouth, and we’re gonna hold you to the same standard that you hold us…you’re gonna have a hell of a time in 2012 because America’s finally awoken…and we’re coming to get you.”

Game on.