Paul L. Caron
Dean




Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Bloomberg Businessweek Cover Story: Is The Tax Code Racist? Dorothy Brown On the Secrets Of White Wealth

BloombergBusinessweek, Is The Tax Code Racist? Dorothy Brown on the Secrets of White Wealth:

BloombergBusinessweekA Tax Code Optimized for White Wealth Leaves Black Americans Behind:

Dorothy Brown has spent her career as a law professor documenting racism in a tax system that’s supposedly colorblind.

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 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.” ...

Brown’s first academic job was at George Mason University’s right-leaning law school, now named for the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Working on predominantly White campuses, Brown says she has dealt with disparaging comments from faculty, disrespectful students, and other instances where she felt treated differently because of her race. In 2001, when she was up for a job at Washington and Lee University, a Virginia institution named for a Confederate general, she presented her work and was interrupted so many times that faculty members later apologized for their colleagues’ rudeness. “Dorothy, you were mugged, but you managed to hang onto your purse,” said one friend who was there. 

In past jobs, Brown says, the profit motive—the fact that she could help close a deal or untangle a tax quandary—had seemed to moderate her co-workers’ racial biases. Academia felt different, but she couldn’t always be sure when the friction had something to do with her race—and, if it did, when to say something and when to bite her tongue. Brown calls this “racism triage”—where “you reserve your energies only for the worst” incidents. To cope, she relied on a small network of Black women law professors at other schools, whom she’d call, asking, “Is this me? Or is this messed up?”

When incidents occurred, Brown pushed back using the political and strategic savvy she’d learned in earlier jobs. It would take two rounds of voting by the Washington and Lee faculty, but she eventually got the job there, and she thrived. Those opposed to her “outed themselves early on,” she says. “I didn’t ever have to worry about them again.”

When incidents occurred, Brown pushed back using the political and strategic savvy she’d learned in earlier jobs. It would take two rounds of voting by the Washington and Lee faculty, but she eventually got the job there, and she thrived. Those opposed to her “outed themselves early on,” she says. “I didn’t ever have to worry about them again.”

When incidents occurred, Brown pushed back using the political and strategic savvy she’d learned in earlier jobs. It would take two rounds of voting by the Washington and Lee faculty, but she eventually got the job there, and she thrived. Those opposed to her “outed themselves early on,” she says. “I didn’t ever have to worry about them again.”

 

 

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2021/03/bloombergbusinessweek-cover-story-is-the-tax-code-racist-dorothy-brown-on-the-secrets-of-white-wealt.html

Book Club, Legal Education, Scholarship, Tax, Tax Scholarship | Permalink