Here’s the problem with parlor games about who is and is not a racist: It’s exactly the conversation that conservatives have spent 30 years fostering in order to drive discussions about racial justice out of public policy. If racism is nothing more than an individual holding hateful ideas, then it’s impossible to correct and of limited relevance to society at large anyway. And if our conversation about race is limited to an endless debate over whether tea partiers—or Officer Crowley or Don Imus or whoever —have racist hearts, then we miss the bigger question of whether they are seeking to build a racist society. To understand racism in America, you cannot focus on the unanswerable question of motive; all that matters are the outcomes.

To wit, we got more proof yesterday that America is a massively racist place. A Center for American Progress report has traced the Great Recession and detailed how blacks and Latinos have fared far worse in it than other Americans:

African Americans and Hispanics have lost more economic ground and done so more quickly than their white counterparts from the end of 2007 to the summer of 2009, and the economic fortunes of minorities have fallen from lower levels than those of whites to begin with. This means that the gap in the economic security between minorities and whites is widening in this recession, as it has in previous ones.

[snip]

The data show that there are apparent structural problems such as labor market segmentation, credit market steering, and discrimination in the U.S. economy and particularly in the labor market that present an unlevel playing field for minorities. Policymakers need to pay closer attention to these problems.

CAP traced a wide breadth of economic indicators—unemployment, income, earnings, health coverage and so on—from the years just before the 2001 recession through 2008. Across the board, blacks and Latinos gained less from the boom years and lost more during the two recessions. The only variation came at the height of the housing boom, when Latinos gained construction jobs—which they’ve since lost.

Report author Christian Weller presented this data to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform yesterday and warned, “We cannot simply rest our hopes on an eventual economic recovery. Concrete policy steps must be taken to make sure that the U.S. economy can finally erase the gulf in economic security and economic opportunities between whites and minorities.”

But those are exactly the kinds of actions that tea partiers, with their rage against “big government,” fear. Those are the “concrete policy steps” that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have said add up to Obama’s secret “reparations” plan. Whether or not these people are racist is beside the point; they are working to build a racist world. That’s the debate, and we cannot allow them to hide it behind coded language about the size and nature of government.