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The tax code helps white people get richer

The color of America’s tax system.

Participants seen spelling out #TaxTheRich at Times Square in front of an American flag.
Participants spelling out #TaxTheRich in Times Square at a demonstration in March 2021.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Dorothy Brown spent years stumped by what was going on with her parents’ tax returns — she couldn’t figure out why they paid so much, even though they were filing their taxes jointly, which the tax code is supposed to favor. A deep dive and a bit of detective work led the Emory University law professor to her answer: The federal tax code does favor married couples where one partner makes the lion’s share of income; it disfavors those with more of an even split. The former scenario has historically been more common for white couples, the latter for Black couples, including Brown’s parents. Her father, James, was a plumber, and her mother, Dottie, a seamstress and nurse, and they made similar amounts of money.

“My parents’ tax bill was so high because they were married to each other. Marriage—which many conservatives assure us is the road out of black poverty—is in fact making Black couples poorer,” Brown writes in her new book, The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It.

The first time Brown heard her mother breathe the word “reparations” was after she read Brown’s chapter about taxes and marriage. “I have never heard my mother use the ‘R-word,’” Brown recounted in an interview with Vox. “She was so upset, because she knows how hard she and my father tried to save and how hard it was.”

Brown’s book, published in March, lays out a compelling case that the tax code is stacked in favor of white Americans and against Black Americans in myriad ways — in housing, education, work, investing, and inheritance — using both data and anecdotes from her family and others. (For a while in the drafting process, the book was focused on the Obamas, but she later scrapped the idea.) She argues it’s all played a role in the disturbingly persistent racial wealth gap, where the median white family in the US has eight times the net worth of the median Black family.

“I wrote the book so Black people could understand how screwed up the system was, that they weren’t winning because of any fault of their own,” she said. The task wasn’t an easy one, in large part because the IRS doesn’t publish tax data by race — something the Bronx-born Brown says must change. “When we start talking about tax reform, we have to include a racial analysis. We have to connect racial inequality to tax policy.”

Vox recently spoke with Brown about the way color has helped white people get richer in America’s economy and tax policy’s role in it. She also talked about policy fixes she does and doesn’t believe would make the tax code fairer (Brown would like to do a sort of backdoor form of reparations through taxes and is skeptical of many progressive housing proposals) and what Black and white Americans can do to help in the meantime. “A lot of white Americans blame Black Americans for their state. They think, ‘I pulled myself up by my bootstraps,’” she said. “Well, no, you really didn’t.”

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below:

Emily Stewart

One of the last times I talked to you, it was about Donald Trump’s tax returns and revelations about how little he paid in taxes. But what you said to me at the time was that tax advantages weren’t really a Donald Trump thing — they are a white, wealthy thing. How is the tax code stacked in white people’s favor?

Dorothy Brown

So let’s take marriage. We have this thing called a joint return that we got because a rich white couple wanted to pay less in taxes before we had a joint return. They filed a tax return that wasn’t legitimate. The IRS said you can’t do that. They filed suit, it went all the way to the Supreme Court, and they won. [The case was Poe v. Seaborn, where the Court ruled in 1930 that a Washington man named H.G. Seaborn, who worked for a shipping company, and his wife, Charlotte, who was a stay-at-home spouse, could split his income jointly on their tax return because they lived in a “community-property state.” Years later, in 1948, Congress created the ability for married couples to file joint returns everywhere.] And as a result of that, eventually, Congress passed the joint return provisions.

What that does is it gives a tax cut to married couples where one person contributes all or almost all of the total household income. And in 1948, when this came into being, about 85 percent of white married couples had that kind of marriage. But Black Americans did not — the typical Black American marriage is one where both spouses contribute roughly equal amounts. So the joint return vision was never designed with Black Americans in mind, it was designed with white Americans in mind, because Black wives have always worked more in the paid labor market than white wives. [To be clear, married couples have the option of filing their taxes separately.]

Emily Stewart

And this is something that happened to your parents, right?

Dorothy Brown

I was doing their tax returns and my tax returns, and something wasn’t adding up in my head. I should have been paying a lot more taxes than they were, and I wasn’t and didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until I became an academic, years later, that I figured it out. They were paying too much in taxes because they were paying a marriage penalty because they were married to each other and they made roughly equal amounts.

Emily Stewart

What about housing?

Dorothy Brown

If you sell your home for more than you paid for it, you can make up to $500,000 from the sale tax-free if you’re married and $250,000 if you’re single. If you sell your home at a loss, you can’t take a deduction.

Emily Stewart

And all of this has ramifications today — when people live in heavily white neighborhoods, the value of their house goes up; when they live in more diverse neighborhoods, that’s often not the case.

Dorothy Brown

We have a 21st-century racist housing market that is built on preferences of white homeowners who are the majority of homebuyers, and white homeowners prefer to live in homogeneous white neighborhoods — that’s the homes they value the most. Research shows, the higher the percentage of Black neighbors, the lower the value of the house.

So who’s most likely to get up to half a million dollars of tax gains? Married white homeowners who live in virtually all-white neighborhoods. Who’s most likely to sell a home at a loss that’s, let’s recall, not deductible? Black Americans, Black homeowners who live in racially diverse or all-Black neighborhoods.

We still have tax subsidies subsidizing white homeownership in ways it’s not subsidizing Black homeownership.

Emily Stewart

One of the things that you get into in the book is that we don’t really know what’s happening, race-wise, in taxes because the IRS doesn’t say. It doesn’t release that data. So how have you been able to figure out what’s going on?

Dorothy Brown

That was the first wake-up call: The IRS doesn’t collect and publish statistics by race. I had to become a detective.

Anything I read that had race statistics I would look at through tax eyes. I saw this statistic in a 1990 US Commission on Civil Rights report that said the typical Black wife contributes 40 percent of household income and the typical white wife contributes 29 percent. That probably meant nothing to anybody else who read the report, but to me, it was tax gold, because that told me that Black married couples are more likely to pay a high marriage penalty. That’s why my parents were paying so much in taxes. So it taught me to look for a proxy.

Emily Stewart

One person you talk about in the book is a white woman in her 60s named Susan who has managed to build a multimillion-dollar fortune in part because of some luck with stocks. She bought a single McDonald’s stock years ago that she’s made some $60,000 on, and through some friends got some guy to teach her about the market and learned to invest. Susan, like all of the white people in your book, didn’t want their last name to be used in the book. What did you make of that?

Dorothy Brown

They said they didn’t want their family to be associated with this, they didn’t really want to talk about their privilege for attribution. And to me, it’s just a function of privilege. White people are vested in us not knowing the advantages that they have, because it then becomes a conversation about merit and hard work, and not luck and who my parents were, which are things we can’t control.

A lot of white Americans blame Black Americans for their state. They think, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” Well, no, you really didn’t. A friend of a friend taught you the stock market — that’s not pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. So it keeps the meritocracy myth going. Part of what I want the book to do is to help white Americans who want to be allies decide to start talking about their fortune, their luck, and their family financial transfers.

Emily Stewart

What are some policy solutions you think would address these issues?

Dorothy Brown

The first thing is that the IRS has to start publishing statistics by race, period, full stop. That’s number one. When we start talking about tax reform, we have to include a racial analysis. We have to connect racial inequality to tax policy.

What my ideal tax system would be, which would not advantage white people or disadvantage Black people, is one where pretty much all income is taxed under the same progressive rate system; we get rid of these deductions and exclusions that are overwhelmingly benefiting white Americans. And then we would create one deduction — I call it a living allowance — that’s based on what you would need to live in the geographical area you’re in. It’s not minimum wage, because in many places, that’s not enough, but it’s what you would need to live. Any amount in excess of that, you would pay tax at the progressive tax rate. Any amount below that, the government sends your check. You can make an analogy to an expanded earned income tax credit.

And then I want to compensate Black Americans for all the decades of higher taxes we’ve paid. My ideal would be a reparations tax credit; unfortunately, the Supreme Court would find that unconstitutional [because the tax code’s discriminatory impact alone would likely not be able to sway the Court, and proving the explicit intent to make Black taxpayers pay more would be difficult]. So my next best alternative would be a wealth tax credit that would apply to any taxpayer, regardless of race, that was in a household with below-median wealth. And that’s going to disproportionately benefit Black Americans because of the racial wealth gap. Another way to look at it is that people are talking about a wealth tax. I look at it from the other end — I want to put money in the hands of low-wealth households.

Emily Stewart

And you’re critical of some of the proposals already out there. Can you talk about some and what you think they’re getting wrong?

Dorothy Brown

So take the baby bonds proposal [which gives children a savings account and puts money into it depending on the family’s income]. I don’t like it tied to income, I want it tied to wealth. When it’s tied to income, you will exclude six-figure-income Black Americans who have virtually no wealth. Research shows that college-educated Black Americans are more likely to be sending home money to their parents; they can’t save the way their white peers can.

I am skeptical of all homeownership programs, because they are encouraging Black people to spend money in a racist market that the only way we get our money out is if we live in an all-white neighborhood. That subjects us to neighbors calling the cops, to fighting with school officials when they tag our children as unruly for the exact same behavior as white kids.

In Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, a great book, he takes the hypothetical example of Levittown, New York, which has a history of race discrimination and high wealth — you’re making money if you buy a home in Levittown. He says he would want several homes there to be bought by the government and basically transferred to Black Americans with some built-in wealth so that they could be on the path of having homeownership work for them the way it does for white people. What that proposal ignores is the folks in Levittown live in Levittown, in part, because there are very few Black people there. If you sold the next X number of homes to Black people, they would leave. Bye-bye, wealth. It ignores the current-day racist behavior of white homeowners. A lot of proposals on the left around homeownership do the same thing.

Having said that, the median wealth of a Black homeowner is significantly higher than the median wealth of a renter. I get that homeownership helps Black Americans build wealth. But it doesn’t really solve the racial wealth gap, because we are buying homes in neighborhoods that don’t appreciate.

Emily Stewart

Beyond policy proposals, in the meantime, what can Black people do to try to navigate the system as it exists?

Dorothy Brown

Be intentional. If you’re going to get married, don’t get married on New Year’s Eve, get married on January 1, so that you can delay not getting a tax cut one more year. If you want to buy a home in a racially diverse or all-Black neighborhood, do not be house-poor, do not put all of your money into a house. And whatever you do, do not take out home equity loans. If you want to make your home a good financial investment, then buy in an all-white neighborhood. In that neighborhood, you can stretch, you can be house-poor, but recognize you’re going to have to engage in what I call “racism triage.” You’re going to have to deal with some things you wouldn’t have to deal with if you’d lived in the all-Black or racially diverse neighborhood.

Say you buy a house in a racially diverse neighborhood and you’re not house-poor, so you have extra money. Where do you put it? I would tell you to make sure you max out on your retirement account. If you have children, think about starting a 529 college savings account and investing some in the stock market. If you work for an employer that has a retirement account and can’t afford it right away, what about when you get a raise? This is a lesson my mother taught me: You didn’t have the money the day before you got the raise; once you get the raise, put the raise in your retirement account.

I wrote the book so Black people could understand how screwed up the system was, that they weren’t winning because of any fault of their own, and that there are ways to be a defensive player until we fix the system.

Emily Stewart

So what about white people who are looking at this and thinking, how can I be a good ally here?

Dorothy Brown

White Americans ought to argue for getting tax return statistics by race. You should support individual filings, because for all these decades, white Americans’ taxes went down. Well, it’s only fair that that not continue off the backs of Black people. Be intentional about where you buy a house. Do you want to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood and say I’m an ally? Or do you want to make a different choice? White Americans who live in gentrifying neighborhoods, how do you interact when you arrive in the neighborhood? Do you decide to take it over?

How can you game the system to help Black people? Where do you send your child to college; what are the graduation rates for Black students? Are they equal? Are they not equal? Does that matter to you? Do you want to agitate? Those of you writing checks to not-for-profit institutions, what are you asking for in return? Do you want to get a building named after you? Shouldn’t you also want to see that Black students are thriving there?

If at a company you’re a manager, make sure you pay white employees and Black employees at the same level the same amount. When you negotiate a hiring package, let’s say the last person you hired was white and they got five things, and now the person you’re negotiating with is Black and they don’t ask for those five things. Give them the five things.

Emily Stewart

One of the things that really struck me with this book was that you told the story through families, including your own, to explain what’s going on. Why choose this approach?

Dorothy Brown

When you talk about tax, it’s very abstract if you don’t show how it actually shows up in somebody’s life. So for me, talking about the stories helps the reader understand the importance of this dull policy I’m about to describe. Suddenly it’s not so dull. It’s, oh, my gosh, that’s hurting the Browns, that’s hurting the Alexanders. That’s why I wanted to tell the story. And it was my parents’ tax return that started me, subconsciously, on this road to begin with. My parents should get all the credit for my 25 years of research because it was their puzzle that was driving me crazy.

Emily Stewart

At the close of the book, you talk about your mother, Dottie’s, reaction to reading your chapter on the marriage penalty, saying for the first time you’d heard that she felt she and your father were owed reparations. What’s her reaction been to all of this?

Dorothy Brown

I have never heard my mother use the “R-word.” And I looked at my phone and thought, well, go, Miss Dottie! She was so upset, because she knows how hard she and my father tried to save and how hard it was. She was just like, “I can’t believe they did this. Somebody has to fix it.”