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The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black…

af Dorothy A. Brown

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Eye-opening discussion of how the facially neutral tax laws were all written in a time that presupposed the white way of life. The opening example: The filing joint tax returns--an option demanded by a wealthy white couple--favors couples where there is one breadwinner and the other is a stay-at home spouse. When both partners work and earn relatively equal salaries, the tax laws penalize them heavily. Guess which are predominantly white, and which black?

In other chapters the author, an Emory law professor, notes that while white students are more likely to receive money from older generations, and thus graduate with relatively little debt, blacks are more likely to be sending money in the opposite direction, to help support parents and grandparents. This exacerbates the difficulty of black families to accrue wealth as easily as white families do.

All in all, I hadn't thought there was this much racial favoritism written into our tax code, even when unintentionally, but there it is. ( )
  dono421846 | Jun 15, 2021 |
Americans of all colors are waking up to the incredible amount of discrimination built right into its system. Blacks in the USA still must fight to even remain in the middle class because the taxation system is structured to boot them out. That is the premise of The Whiteness of Wealth, a clear, cogent, thorough and revealing work by a black tax lawyer, Dorothy Brown.

Americans generally know that black households have a fraction of the accumulated wealth of whites. But Brown goes behind the headline numbers to show not only how this came to be, but why it continues, why it must continue, and how much of a threat it remains to every new generation of blacks in America.

The book opens with a great line: ”I became a tax lawyer to get away from race.” Because you’d think taxes would be a safe haven where everyone gets the same treatment. But race issues are everywhere in taxation, and eventually, Brown took it upon herself to prove it by the numbers. It was a daunting task. For one thing, the Internal Revenue Service does not collect data by race. Every other conceivable datapoint – but not race. This has the salutary effect of preventing claims the system is unfair. Brown had to research a widely dispersed dataset, sometimes inferring race by zip code, and employing studies from which a single stat might help prove her generalized case. It is a very detailed, impressive piece of detective work and scholarship.

In case after case, she proves that the system is set up to benefit whites, at the expense of blacks. Blacks pay the same taxes, but don’t get the same benefits, for example. Famous cases are the GI Bill and land grants, both routinely denied awards to blacks. They are also routinely refused loans, grants, subsidies and lower interest rate mortgages, among others. Taxes paid by blacks go to subsidize whites in programs blacks cannot access. Brown says black families making over $300,000 a year are more likely to get a subprime mortgage than a white family making $30,000. White households headed by a high school dropout will show wealth of $34,700, while black households headed by a college graduate only show wealth of $23,400.

Among the many reasons Brown found for this was that black families must operate differently, and the tax laws do not take this into account, because they were written for whites. One big example is dependency. In white families, parents and grandparents aid children with tuition, house downpayments and gifts. In black families, the children support the parents and grandparents (and others). Support goes upwards through the generations, not downward towards the children. The result is little or no wealth accumulation. And that means no wealth-boosting transfers to the next generations.

In the chapter on housing, there is the usual litany of prejudice from redlining and subprime mortgages. But there is also the business of sales. Homes in predominantly black neighborhoods do not soar in value as they do in white areas. Worse, they are likely to lose value instead. But while profits from home sales are generally safe from taxation, losses are not even deductible against capital gains. So the net worth of black families can shrink every time they move.

Brown has studied it up and down, and has come to this point: “I propose to revise all homeownership subsidies to target them directly to those living in neighborhoods that are undervalued because of the race of their occupants. Those neighborhoods deserve government tax subsidies, because the government’s original discrimination against black Americans gave rise to the current discrimination perpetuated by private white homebuyers. Since 10 percent seems to be the magic number of black homeowners that makes a neighborhood lose value, homeowners living in neighborhoods with more than 10 percent black homeowners would be eligible for all current tax subsidies. Won’t that lead to gentrification? Well, a tax break could help offset rising property taxes, and keep black homeowners in place; and as we’ve seen, when black homeowners remain, neighborhoods are much less attractive to many white homeowners.”

A similar situation plays out in income taxes. Married couples have various marriage penalties to contend with in the antiquated US tax regime, but the one that hurts blacks most is the differential. For a couple where one works and the other doesn’t, taxes are reduced substantially. When both work and make about the same money, the tax bill is maximized. This is the trap blacks find themselves in, as a higher proportion of them must have both spouses working to make ends meet. For whites, it means one spouse provides free labor in childcare, upkeep, cooking and so on, completely untaxed. That’s the white way and it enriches them further, while blacks pay out more of their income.

Brown provides a remarkable chart showing the number of black families who benefit from marriage bonuses (MB), compared to those who suffer from marriage penalties (MP). It is not particularly pretty, but most readers will be seeing such a thing for the first time.

Blacks pay first class taxes for second class citizenship, she says. And it is so obvious and so serious, it is preventing essentially all progress for blacks to build wealth to pass on, such as a valuable home, investments, retirement plans and so on. Brown says “A 2015 Brookings Institution report titled ’Five Bleak Facts on Black Opportunity’ found that not only did most black American families fail to rise out of the middle class, their children were actually more likely to fall out of the middle class than they were to remain there. “ So this is known, but lawmakers are clearly not even attempting to deal with it.

Where then does all this come from? At bottom, it is selfish negligence. Lawmakers write statutes for whites and their situations and lifestyles, because that’s who they tend to be, and who (they think) they represent. Courts rule for whites who take issue with tax laws. But the results apply to all, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians, whether their situations are appropriate for those tax laws or not.

Then, over the years, various lawmakers force changes (but not overhauls). They are influenced by lobbyists and high-powered supporters to change just one thing in a tax law – for their own benefit. These (white) influencers have no concern about unintended consequences. It has made the tax code so complex, convoluted and dense, there is no one in the world who can understand it all. But the ones who get the least benefit are blacks. As Brown summarizes it: “The American dream was never designed with us in mind.”

Brown is forceful, eloquent and quotable. She proves not only her tax chops, but her legal chops as well. She cites all manner of court decisions in showing how these tax laws came to be, and why it is nearly impossible to overturn them. The deck is stacked against blacks, so despite all the progress in breaking down racism and discrimination through, say, the Civil Rights Act, the very structure of the tax system fairly mandates their continued oppression.

The book is not all just complaining. Brown has thought through just how the statutes are prejudiced, and makes several recommendations for making them fairer. Her biggest effort though, is a recommendation for reparations. She details how it should work, how much it would cost, and the expected effects on society as a whole. Readers don’t have to agree, but this book is a comprehensive treatise, from problem to solution.

My only complaint is the repetition. Brown has strong points, but she keeps repeating them when they’ve already been thoroughly made. She also likes to repeat the same stories, mostly regarding her parents, who are poster children for the unfairness of the tax system (as well as racism in society). But her constant retelling of their stories is unnecessary. So the book suffers from the lack of a hardheaded editor’s pencil. This must not deter anyone from reading The Whiteness of Wealth. It is a powerfully written insight into a structural defect that keeps the country unequal.

David Wineberg ( )
1 stem DavidWineberg | Jan 31, 2021 |
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