03/04/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

This Is How You Educate People About Racism: Jamelle Bouie on the Wealth Gap

Last week I posted a piece called "Is America 'A Racist Country?'

Here's the guts of it, so that I can continue the conversation below:

"America is a racist country," Mychal Denzel Smith wrote earlier this month in an article at The Nation. Smith called on whites to acknowledge racism's pervasiveness and eliminate it. I won't debate the accuracy of Smith's assessment of what America is, and I don't know whether or not he was using hyperbole to make his point. Either way, however, his demand that white people admit its truth as part of their pledge to fight racism only discourages some of them from doing what the article's title rightly demands, to "give up racism."

As I explain, I agree with Smith about the depth and breadth of racism, but I ask how productive it is to come at potential allies with "America is a racist country." We can see another approach to discussing racism and how it continues to negatively affect African Americans today in an article by Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect. The article discusses a new study out of Brandeis that shows the wealth gap (i.e., the difference in total net worth) between whites and blacks has gone from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009. It does not sugarcoat the problem at all, and offers an incredibly informative explanation of how this gap came about, and why more active, race-conscious measures may well be necessary in order to close it.

But look at what Bouie does in the section below (I've italicized and bolded some of the text for emphasis):

It's fitting Brandeis released this report during a week where the Supreme Court will debate a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. The nut of the argument -- aimed at a provision requiring federal scrutiny for districts with histories of racial discrimination in voting -- is that we're past the problems of overt racism. Which is true! Casual racial prejudice is taboo, blacks exercise a fair amount of political power, and just last year, the country re-elected its first African American president -- a milestone that might be more significant than his initial victory.

These are impressive gains. But they aren't the whole ballgame. Much of the actual structure of racism remains, and that's a much larger obstacle to equality of opportunity. Unfortunately, few Americans understand the extent to which anti-black racism was an organizing principle for public policy through much of 19th and 20th centuries. To borrow from The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, "It is not enough to merely understand segregation as a means to keep the 'races' separate. Segregation [was] about rendering black people a permanent underclass."

The truth of that is plain in the history of American housing policy. For decades, policymakers at all levels of government worked to keep African Americans out of good housing and good neighborhoods, confining them to low-income areas with poor services and worse opportunities. The explicit goal was to limit black mobility -- and it worked. The policies were a huge success.

By acknowledging progress, by offering some, if you will, "positive reinforcement," Bouie will likely have been more able to gain the trust of middle of the road whites, people who would perhaps just stop reading if confronted with a statement like "America is a racist country." Then, Bouie can educate such readers about the reality of racism and, I believe, win over far more people than Smith does with his approach, which really just preaches to the choir.

My larger point in all of this is that defeating racism requires us to win over as many people as possible, and a big part of that is simply winning them over to a progressive political perspective, and away from a conservative one. If we treat people who are potential allies with respect, the way we'd want to be treated, we can convince more of them than if we don't. It's that simple.

The political process is the arena whereby we can either gain or lose supporters, i.e., voters. If you don't think that matters in the fight against racism, ask yourself how much more confident you'd be about the fate of the Voting Rights Act if a Democratic president rather than George W. Bush had been able to replace Sandra Day O'Connor and/or William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court.