E2 Tax Code So White
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 15, 2021
Dorothy Brown has spent her career documenting racism in a tax system that’s supposedly colorblind
Ben Steverman

Growing up in the Bronx during the 1960s and ’70s, Dorothy Brown couldn’t escape racism. It was all around. Her father, James, a plumber, being barred from joining the local union. Her mother, Dottie, having to battle prejudiced teachers, including one who marked down Dorothy’s sister’s grades so the precocious child wouldn’t upstage her White classmates. Or the White cop beating a handcuffed Black man in the backseat of a cruiser, something she once observed while waiting to cross a street.

As a teenager, Brown thought she’d found a way out—a loophole in American racism. Taking an accounting class, the self-described math geek discovered the U.S. tax code, a universe governed by intricate rules where race wouldn’t matter. In tax law, she thought, “the only color that mattered was green.” The assumption carried her through an early career as a tax attorney, an investment banker, and then a political appointee in President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

After that, though, Brown spent a quarter-century trying to prove the opposite: that although tax laws may appear to be colorblind, they still discriminate against Black Americans. Now the Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University, Brown is preparing to publish a book that’s the culmination of years of research, titled The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It.

It arrives at an opportune time. After decades during which the 61-year-old Brown says mainstream tax and policy experts “either dismissed, attacked, or ignored” her, her ideas appear to be finding an audience. “People are starting to pay more attention to her work and what she’s been telling us for a while,” says Chye-Ching Huang, executive director of New York University’s Tax Law Center.

Last summer, after the killing of George Floyd ignited protests around the country, Brown got more calls from reporters than she’d received in her entire career. By the time President Biden promised, on his first day in office, to identify and dismantle systemic racism perpetuated by all federal departments, staffers on Capitol Hill were already consulting Brown about the Internal Revenue Service’s impact on racial disparities. “Suddenly people wanted to talk about race and tax,” she says.

With The Whiteness of Wealth, Brown has turned a notoriously boring topic into a surprisingly accessible and lively 288-page book, relying on examples from real families, including her own, to guide readers through the intricacies of a tax code provisioned for just about every milestone in a person’s life—education, marriage, homeownership, childbearing, death, and inheritance. Generations of lawmakers have optimized the system for White people, she argues, with the result that in the U.S.’s supposedly progressive and race-neutral tax code, Black people end up paying more than White people with the same incomes.

The challenge for Brown’s research has been all the greater because the IRS doesn’t take race into account when it analyzes its giant trove of tax data. So she had to laboriously stitch together information from dozens of other sources to prove her book’s thesis. The best evidence that the system is unfair to Black people is the sheer size and persistence of the racial wealth gap. The median White family has a net worth eight times the typical Black family’s wealth. According to Federal Reserve figures, that’s the same size gap as in 1983, despite higher incomes, educational gains, and extraordinary progress by individual Black people, including to the highest office in the land.

The book also serves as something of a primer on how wealth works in America, showing how the rich pass assets to their children and why those starting from the bottom face such a difficult climb. Brown devotes her final chapter to advice for Black readers trying to navigate a system that disadvantages them at every turn. “Black Americans need to be defensive players,” she writes, “choosing strategies in their educations, careers, and family lives that compensate for oppressive practices and policies.” She also pushes for major tax changes to erase biases toward Whites and to assist all people, especially Black ones, who are trying to build wealth. Never again should politicians discuss tax reform without considering race, she says. “I literally want to change how America talks about tax policy.”

One afternoon in the early ’90s, Brown pulled out an essay she’d been looking forward to reading by her friend and mentor Jerome Culp, the first professor of color to receive tenure at Duke University’s law school. She’d been feeling isolated at her first academic job, with White colleagues who she says seemed clueless about race, at best. And here was Culp arguing that race should no longer be overlooked in important areas of the law. “There may be an income tax problem that would benefit from being viewed in a Black perspective,” he wrote by way of example, “but until you look, how will anyone know?” Brown called Culp and promised to try.

It took several years for her to publish her first research on the question, focusing on the taxation of married couples. Black Americans are more likely to be single, and if they’re married, it’s more likely both spouses will be working. These considerations wouldn’t have mattered when the income tax made its debut in 1913, because all earners were treated the same regardless of marital status. But in 1930 a rich White shipbuilder named Henry Seaborn persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to lower his tax bill by imputing half his income to his wife. Congress eventually went along, and ever since, couples with only one high earner have paid less. Brown realized this policy had meant higher tax bills for her parents: The tax code essentially treats a plumber and a nurse who are paying for child care and commuting expenses with after-tax dollars the same or worse than it does a banker earning their combined salaries whose spouse stays home with the kids.

In the next 20 years, Brown went on to systematically catalog other ways in which, when Black families like her own tried to hoist themselves up the economic scale, the U.S. tax system pulled them down. Her colleagues, who were overwhelmingly White, expressed skepticism, however. “Dorothy, everybody knows your work is irrelevant, because Black people are poor and don’t pay taxes,” she says one professor told her, rudely laying bare an assumption she’s confronted countless times. (Four-fifths of Black households don’t fall below the poverty line.)

Brown’s early published work “caused her lots of professional grief,” recalls her friend Mechele Dickerson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “People thought you were just trying to be controversial—that you’re just making stuff up.” Those on the left asked if this was about class, not race. Conservatives posed a different question: Wouldn’t these disparities disappear if Black taxpayers just acted more like White ones?

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