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Tax and Race in Modern America: An Interview with Dorothy Brown

Dorothy A. Brown is professor of law at Emory University School of Law. She is a nationally recognized scholar in tax policy, race, and class and has published extensively on the racial implications of federal tax policy. She is highly sought for her expertise in workplace inclusion issues, a respected speaker in the legal community, and a regularly engaged expert by media including Bloomberg, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, National Law Journal, and Forbes. Before becoming a professor of law, Brown worked as an adviser to J. Stephen Swift of the US Tax Court, as an associate with Haynes & Miller in Washington, DC, and as an investment banker at New York’s Drexel, Burnham & Lambert. She also was a special assistant to the Federal Housing Commissioner at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her new book, The Whiteness of Wealth, was published in March 2021.

Miles Munkacy: As you’ve recounted many times, this book was spurred by what you found when doing your parents’ taxes. Can you explain what you discovered and what it led you to learn later?

Dorothy Brown: I was doing my parents’ tax returns as well as my own. By myself, I was making what my parents combined were making. I understood the progressive tax system would suggest I would pay a lot more in taxes than them, but I found I was not paying much more than they were.

I always came away thinking I was doing something wrong, even though I knew I wasn’t. I had a full time job so I didn’t really have time to think about it. I finished the taxes, sent them in, and then I’d go through the same thing year after year.

When I became a law professor, I actually had the time. One particular afternoon, I was reading an article written by a mentor that said, “How do you know there isn’t a race and tax problem if you don’t look?” I thought, “Wow! Race and tax?” I decided then that I was going to look into the issue, so I picked up the phone to tell him that I was going to write about it. That was easier said than done. I quickly found out that the IRS doesn’t publish statistics by race, which makes it really hard to do an analysis of race and tax. So, I had to become a detective. Whenever I read about race, I would read it through the lens of taxes. 

For example, I read a US Commission on Civil Rights report which found that married Black women contribute 41% of household income and married white women contribute 29%. The tax nerd in me realized I had struck gold. That single statistic told me that Black married couples were more likely to pay higher taxes when they got married—something called the marriage penalty—than white married couples because of how husbands and wives contributed income to the household.

MM: You have discussed in many interviews that the common rebuttal to your argument, especially from white people, is that the issue is class, not race; the common phrase is “what about poor whites?” So, can you explain how race is the more important factor in the tax system than class?

DB: Whenever I get class questions, they force me to look at race issues along income lines. If this was just a class issue, you would only expect to see effects at certain class levels, but I found that this tax issue disproportionately affected Black people across the income spectrum. So, it’s hard to say it’s class if Black Americans, regardless of income, are more likely to pay higher taxes than white taxpayers.

MM: You purposely structured your book by comparing the different experiences of white and Black people with taxes. Does your research also touch on other people of color?

DB: The book looks at the Black-white wealth gap and the comparison between those two groups because that racial wealth gap is the greatest. However, my research has looked at different racial and ethnic groups. For example, I’ve researched retirement account access between white workers, Black workers, and Latinx workers. That research showed that Latinx workers were least likely to work for an employer with a retirement account, and if they did, were least likely to participate. Even though Black Americans participated less than white Americans, Latinx Americans had it worst of all in that situation.

MM: One of many important ideas in your book is the dilemma Black people face when deciding which neighborhood to live in: they can choose a better home in a majority white neighborhood where they might face discrimination, or they can get a worse home in a more diverse neighborhood and face less discrimination. How should policymakers address this conundrum?

DB: This idea has only recently started to gain traction. Lots of white Americans want to believe that home ownership for Black Americans was identical to home ownership for white Americans. In fact, my homeownership research got more pushback than any of my other research.

I presented it to a group of white, middle and upper middle class law professors who thought of themselves as progressive. When I asked about the lack of racial diversity in their neighborhoods, they would say it was about class rather than race. They would say they were  just worried about property values and the impact of crime, but if you say crime is why you don’t live next to Black people, that’s racist in itself.

Progressive white Americans want to believe in the American Dream for Black Americans. They want to believe the Black middle class is identical to them, but it’s not. When I’ve testified on Capitol Hill and I’ve gotten questions from members of Congress, they are more likely to get it now. They recognize that home ownership isn’t the end-all-be-all. My book has played a role in that, which I’m pleased with, but it’s been an uphill battle getting people to recognize that home ownership for most white Americans doesn’t work the same way it does for Black Americans.

Even with that new information, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of solutions come out of Congress. The answer isn’t necessarily a first time buyer’s tax credit. That’s not going to help Black Americans who don’t have enough for a down payment. That’s going to help somebody who would otherwise buy a house anyway, and now they get a tax break associated with it. Now that we have a conversation going about the racial impact of taxes, we’re going to have to see what comes out of the Biden administration. 

MM: In an article you wrote in 2015, you discussed the importance of white people leading the charge against police brutality, systemic racism, and other similar issues. However, in recent months, there’s been intense pushback from many white people about efforts to teach race, specifically critical race theory. How do you reconcile those two ideas?

DB: Well, because both are true, right? White people do need to be better allies and lead the charge, but there are some white Americans that want to take us back to when white supremacy was the law of the land. America is this dichotomy where we have a segment of the white population that wants to go back, and we have a segment of the white population that wants to do better. Right now, we’re in a battle for the soul of this country, and we’re going to find out how many more white Americans want to push back against their privilege than want to push back against Black people getting rights.

The pushback against critical race theory isn’t really against critical race theory, because any time someone is asked what they mean by critical race theory, they can’t answer it. The problem people actually have is with teaching race and the history of racism in school. I think part of it is white parents who have been racist, and who are currently racist, don’t want their children to learn the extent of the racism and how their parents have done nothing to fix it. They don’t want their kids going home and challenging them.

They’re calling it critical race theory because that sounds scary and it’ll get the base out. But really, it’s them not wanting to talk about how bad white people were and continue to be to Black Americans.

MM: Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argued in The Imperative of Integration that America is never going to get past its legacy of racism and deal with its current issues of systemic racism unless it integrates—until people of color and white people live together. What do you think about that? Do you think it’s possible for any legal or policy solution to solve inequality if America remains a separated and segregated society?

DB: I think America’s fundamental problem is that white people are in denial, and because they’re in their enclave, they can stay in denial. The problem I have with integration is that it produces harm to Black folks. If you’re making me live next to white people and I don’t want to live next to white people, then you have internalized their racism onto me and you have internalized cost onto me.

K-12 education offers a great opportunity to fix this, because people just need to be forced to get the information. However, this learning doesn’t necessarily have to be in an integrated space because right now putting people in the same space harms Black children. It imposes those costs, one example being school resource officers that will see a white kid and a Black kid misbehaving and punish the Black kid but not the white kid.

You need to think through what impact these policies will have on the Black people in those spaces, and I think forced integration is not going to be good for Black Americans.

MM: What are your thoughts on how the Biden administration has done so far? You’ve talked in interviews about how the first day he signed an executive order on race and that it wasn’t necessarily reflected in the departments that you study.

DB: The Treasury Department is doing nothing that I can see with implementing the racial equity order. A week or two ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Office of Management and Budget to find out what they’re doing. They have a working group that’s supposed to be working on data and race, but I’ve seen no results so far.

I am also profoundly disappointed in the IRS, who has a cadre of statisticians who are not doing anything. In fact, the commissioner went on Capitol Hill recently and said that it was the Treasury’s rather than the IRS’ job to collect statistics on race. That’s a lie! The income division in the IRS publishes statistics, but it’s not their job to publish statistics on race? Unfortunately, they get away with it.

MM: As a Black woman teaching at an elite institution, what are your thoughts on the denial of tenure to people like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Cornel West? Do you think Hannah-Jones’ move to an HBCU says something about where the future of education is headed?

DB: No one should have been surprised at what happened to Nikole Hannah-Jones given UNC’s history. Years ago, the law school at UNC lost funding for a clinic because the state didn’t want them advocating for civil rights for North Carolinians against big companies.

At the same time that Nikole Hannah-Jones didn’t get tenure, there was a white guy who ran the UNC press who didn’t get re-appointed to that job in part because he defended the 1619 Project. I know a Black faculty member who had been denied tenure at UNC long before anybody knew Nikole Hannah-Jones’ name, so to me, it highlighted a problem that those of us in academia knew has long existed—that Black faculty, even when they do what is told, can be denied tenure, simply because we told the truth or said something that somebody didn’t like.

The solution also isn’t that everybody needs to just go work at an HBCU. We shouldn’t leave predominantly white institutions to discriminate against Black faculty because students are not exiting. I more saw it as a missed opportunity to talk about the number of Black faculty who are being mistreated at higher educational institutions, not just Nikole Hannah-Jones.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.