Photo: Ann Watson

How Our Tax Code Is Rigged Against Black Americans

Emory University law professor Dorothy Brown saw a lot as a girl growing up in the South Bronx, including a white cop beating a handcuffed Black detainee in the backseat of a squad car. Her father, enviably named James Brown, was a plumber who worked for a private firm with no benefits because the union that controlled local public sector jobs didn’t much appreciate the color of his skin. Brown’s mom, Dottie, worked as a nurse and a seamstress. With a modest loan from her father’s white boss, the family was able to purchase a home in 1964, which was fortunate given that the federal government had yet to outlaw racial discrimination in housing, and government-insured bank mortgages wre still largely unavailable to Black families. Brown chose to pursue tax law, she writes, because she figured it was a field in which she could avoid dealing with race.

Boy, was she mistaken

Race was relentlessly in her face, particularly as the lone Black woman law professor at George Mason—now Antonin Scalia School of Law. The white faculty were clueless on race, she writes. One year, administrators failed to set aside money, as they had for her white colleagues, for Brown to hire a research assistant—they’d “forgotten,” and now it was too late.

Eventually, inspired by an article by her late mentor Jerome Culp, a Duke law professor  who advocated “black legal scholarship,” Brown set out to determine how the tax code works against people like her parents, who paid higher taxes than comparably earning white couples with sole breadwinners. She found that when white people get to write the rules based on their cultural and financial interests, things tend not to work out so great for the groups excluded from that rule-making process. In her new book, The Whiteness of Wealth, Brown digs deep into how tax policies related to most aspects of American life—housing, marriage, work, education, etc—elevate white prosperity at the expense, wittingly or otherwise, of Black wealth and opportunity. Naturally, I had questions. [Read more.]       

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