Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on March 23, 2022. Find that audio here.
Chances are, if you're a white taxpayer in the U.S., you're getting a better deal than Black Americans.
That’s according to a new book called "The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans – and How We Can Fix It” by Emory University tax law professor Dorothy Brown. She writes that the U.S. tax system has long favored white Americans, effectively reinforcing and creating a staggering racial wealth gap.
Born and raised in the South Bronx, Brown says she’s dealt with racism her whole life. She decided to practice tax law in order to pursue a career where she thought race and racism had nothing to do with her work.
“As I say in the book, I've never been more wrong about anything in my life,” she says.
A mentor of hers wrote an article asking readers to look at the connection between the country’s tax system and race. She decided to interrogate the issue — and immediately ran into roadblocks. The IRS does not publish statistics by race, she says, complicating her efforts.
The more she began to investigate race and tax policies, the more she connected the dots between how the system puts Black Americans at a disadvantage. “All kinds of things that I never realized before became readily apparent,” she says.
Marriage puts the issue front and center, she says. Most married Americans receive a tax cut, “but there is a significant minority of Americans, when they get married, they pay higher taxes,” she says. “Well, as it turns out, if you look at Census Bureau data, which actually does provide this information by race, you see white married couples are more likely to contribute income … that leads to them getting a tax cut.”
However, Black married couples are more likely to contribute income to the household in a way that leads to higher taxes, Brown says.
For example, “let's say someone makes $50,000. As a single person, their taxes are going to be a certain rate,” she says. “But as a married person with a single wage earner, that $50,000 household is going to wind up paying less taxes than that single wage earner had they remained single.”
Census Bureau data shows single wage-earning families are more likely to be white than Black, she says. For example, many of these types of single wage-earning families consist of a working white man — a person who statistically holds a higher paying job than any other identity, she says — and a woman who stays home with the children.
“On the other hand, the couple where both spouses are working full time and contributing roughly equal amounts to household income, they don't get a tax cut,” she says. “That couple is more likely to be Black than white.
On her parents’ experience with taxes as a Black married couple, both contributing income to the household
“So I'm doing as any good daughter with an [Master of Laws degree] in tax does — our parents’ tax returns — and I'm seeing something's wrong. I'm doing my taxes, and I made, by myself, roughly what my parents made combined. … I was paying more, but not that much more. And I always came away from doing our returns thinking something's wrong and I can't figure it out. And this went on and on until I became a professor and started looking at race and tax. And the very first thing I wrote about was the marriage penalty and the marriage bonus. And it explained why my parents were paying so much in taxes. It was because their incomes were very close together.”
On the consequences of U.S. tax laws being created at a time when Black families were paying into the system but didn't have the same legal rights to housing, employment, education and marriage
“Black taxpayers are paying for our own subordination. And I'm thinking of what happened after World War II, where the income tax system was transformed. It went from only the richest Americans paying it to most Americans paying it. And that happened in the ‘40s when we still had Jim Crow when the [Federal Housing Administration] would not insure mortgages for homes in Black neighborhoods. So we had taxpayer dollars funding [Housing and Urban Development], but HUD's policies and programs discriminated against Black Americans.”
On whether she thinks tax policies were made with explicit racist intent
“I think the tax policies were made with the intent to benefit white Americans, and a lot of the tax policies I talk about in the book are traced back to this Jim Crow era. And if you are a legislator and you think that Blacks are second class citizens and the law tells you Black Americans are second class citizens, then making tax law to benefit white Americans seems very normal and very natural.”
On what’s holding the country back from creating a more equitable tax system
“[The U.S. Department of the Treasury] not publishing statistics by race is the biggest problem. We have the president's executive order that talks about racial equity across government agencies, including Treasury. But I'm seeing nothing out of Treasury that would give me hope that this is going to turn around.”
On whether President Biden’s plan to change the capital gains tax would help racial discrepancies
“Absolutely, because when we look at ownership of stock, there are huge racial disparities and it goes across income lines. So you could say, ‘well, that's just because Blacks are disproportionately poor and it's really not a race issue, Dorothy. It's a class issue.’ But if you look at high-income Black Americans, if you look at wealthy Black Americans, we don't own stock to the extent that our white peers do. So increasing taxation on this very racialized asset — stock — would make a big difference in racial equity concerns. … So what this would do, for people with income over $1 million, would require income from stock to be taxed at the same tax system as income from wages.”
On her advice to Black taxpayers who have to work inside a system that works against them
“I talk about being a defensive player. So if you're going to get married, don't get married on New Year's Eve, get married on New Year's Day. That delays the issue one year — something simple. If you're thinking about buying a home because of the different returns on homeownership to Black homeowners versus white homeowners, then think about it. Do you want to be one of the few Black homeowners in an all-white neighborhood, which would make it a good financial investment? But you will have to deal with racism from neighbors, perhaps calling the police on you when you're trying to get into your own home.
“On the other hand, you could buy in a racially diverse or all-Black neighborhood recognizing you won't get out of the home as much as if you lived in an all-white neighborhood. So you don't put all of your money in a home. You make sure you max out on your retirement account. You make sure you set up a child savings account for your child to go to college. So you basically become proactive, recognizing that the system isn't designed for Black wealth.”
On white Americans being transparent about wealth disparities
“... I want more white Americans to tell their story, right. I want more white Americans to say ‘I didn't have a college debt problem the way Black Americans do because I had family wealth that paid for my college. I had down payment assistance or because I didn't have debt, I could save money for a down payment.’ Part of what I'm asking white Americans to do is to tell their stories of intergenerational wealth and how it's not that Black Americans aren't working hard enough, aren't saving enough, it's that the wealth-building system is inherently stacked in favor of white wealth building.”
Book Excerpt: 'The Whiteness Of Wealth'
By Dorothy Brown
I became a tax lawyer to get away from race.
I was born and raised in the South Bronx in New York City. My father, James, was a plumber who worked, without benefits, for a private company, because black men couldn’t join the union that controlled the good public-sector jobs. My mother, Dottie, was a nurse and a seamstress who had left her job as a garment factory “floor girl” because she knew she could do better work than the white seamstresses who got all the opportunities. We lived in a three-family house at 1061 Morris Avenue, purchased with the help of a $6,000 loan from my father’s white boss, and rented the upper and middle apartments to black tenants who became more like family. We didn’t have a lot, but we had food on the table and clothes on our backs (handmade by my mother, of course), and my sister and I had a little bit of spending money. My parents had lived through the Jim Crow era and faced laws dictating what they could earn, what they could own, and where they could live, but they were determined that their children’s generation would get educated and live on their own terms.
As a little girl, I believed that was a possibility.
Then, when I was around nine or ten years old, I left the house one day with my mother. I held her hand as we walked to the corner of 166th Street and waited for the light to change. A police car drove by, and as it passed I spotted a handcuffed black man in the backseat. Sitting beside him was a white officer, beating him. It was broad daylight.
I turned in horror to confirm that my mother was seeing this, too. In a low, emotionless voice, she said, “That happens sometimes.”
My eyes returned to the car. The handcuffed man and I made eye contact. As the police car turned the corner, I held his gaze until I could no longer see him.
Normally my mother was no shrinking violet when it came to fighting racism. My sister and I would cringe whenever a white store manager chose to wait on a white customer before us; we knew what was about to happen, and it happened a lot.
“Excuse me!” my mother would say. “We were here first!” She would not use her inside voice, and she wouldn’t budge from the head of the line. Standing her ground—that’s Dottie Brown.
So when I saw that man in the back of the police car, my mother’s reaction told me there was not a thing either one of us could do about it.
And that’s how I became a tax lawyer. Because I learned early on that people might look at me and see black, but as far as tax law was concerned, the only color that mattered was green. I attended Fordham University and majored in accounting, then got my law degree from Georgetown and earned a master’s in tax law from NYU. Tax law was about math, and I was sure I’d chosen a career where race had nothing to do with my work.
I have never been more wrong about anything in my life.
From the book THE WHITENESS OF WEALTH: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans – and How We Can Fix It by Dorothy A. Brown. Copyright © 2021 by Dorothy A. Brown. Used by permission of Crown Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on May 17, 2021.