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U.S. Tax Policy and Race: A Conversation with Professor Dorothy Brown

Dorothy Brown — Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

How do you know tax policies are not discriminatory if the IRS doesn’t collect data on race? This question triggered curiosity in Dr. Dorothy Brown, professor of law and author of The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans and How We Can Fix It.

Dr. Brown recently sat down with Danielle Goonan, Managing Director of Economic Policy for The Rockefeller Foundation’s Equity and Economic Opportunity initiative, to discuss her research on race and the tax system and started by noting that the American Dream is not a lived reality for Black Americans.

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How did we get here? The progressive income tax system was instituted in 1913, when only the wealthiest Americans – all white at that time — were required to pay taxes In the first half of the 20th Century, white Americans sought changes to benefit white taxpayers.

“Most of our tax policies in 2021 date back to the first half of the 20th Century,” Dr. Brown says. “Think about that. The first half of the 20th Century, there was no Brown v. Board of Ed, there was no Civil Rights Act, and Jim Crow was legal. We shouldn’t be surprised that we have a tax system that disadvantages Black Americans when their roots trace to Jim Crow.”

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Dr. Brown points out that because the IRS does not collect statistics on race, they contend, “If we don’t know the race of taxpayers, we can’t be discriminatory.” But in fact, the refusal to acknowledge race and taxes allows us to become complacent in a system in which Black Americans are being audited more and are ultimately paying higher taxes.

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Equitable tax reform will require an honest acknowledgment that the Black American experience differs from that of white Americans.

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Dr. Brown reminds us throughout her book that wealth and income are not the same thing. Even when policies acknowledge the income gap between Black and white Americans, she says, we need to do more to address the racial wealth gap.

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Dr. Brown lays out the raw reality: there is, in fact, a race and tax problem. Black Americans pay more in taxes and are audited far more frequently than their white counterparts. The solution, Dr. Brown says, is “a tax system that doesn’t strip Black wealth every April 15th.”


To learn more about race and the American tax system, be sure to watch the full interview, here.