Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Dickerson Reviews Brown's The Whiteness Of Wealth

A. Mechele Dickerson (Texas), Shining a Bright Light on the Color of Wealth, 120 Mich. L. Rev. 1085 (2022) (reviewing Dorothy A. Brown (Georgetown; Google Scholar), The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans — And How We Can Fix It (2021)):

Michigan Law Review (2022)Professor Dorothy A. Brown boldly asserts in The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans — And How We Can Fix It  that “whiteness has consistently and continually played a serious role in wealth building” (p. 20). Using stories from her life and the lives of other Black taxpayers, Brown methodically exposes how the same tax laws and policies that help whites build intergenerational wealth impoverish Blacks. Although readers who lack a business or legal background may not grasp the intricate technicalities of the Internal Revenue Code sections that Brown dissects, that does not matter. The clarity of Brown’s writing, her storytelling, and vivid examples involving her parents (Miss Dottie and James) and other ordinary Black taxpayers convey complex points—think tax policy preferences for horizontal equity or the lock-in effect—with ease.

This Review examines Brown’s powerful assertion that tax policies build and protect intergenerational white wealth and exacerbate the racial wealth gap by subsidizing activities and personal choices that disproportionately benefit white taxpayers. Those stunned by the enormity of this racial wealth gap will be horrified to learn that tax policies were designed to create white wealth.

Part I describes how tax policy impacts taxpayers differently throughout their lives. It begins by discussing educational tax subsidies, followed by workforce subsidies, marriage and home ownership subsidies, and inheritance subsidies. Using Whiteness of Wealth as a starting point, this Review bolsters Brown’s findings with additional data to illustrate the stark disparities embedded in and perpetuated by our tax policies.

Part II explains how Brown dismantles the traditional conservative claim that the best way for Blacks to close the racial wealth gap created by “decades of historical discrimination against [B]lack taxpayers” is to mimic white behavior (p. 215). It then explores how this hard-work trope has been misused to explain ways that financially vulnerable lower- and middle-income families across races can become and remain middle class.

Midway through The Whiteness of Wealth, Professor Brown quotes Supreme Court Justice Brandeis: “[S]unlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” (p. 129). Brown’s book sheds a bright light on the ways tax laws impoverish Blacks while enriching whites, making it impossible for policymakers to pretend that they are unaware that the federal tax code is rife with provisions that increase white wealth. Although changing “[t]ax policy alone can’t solve the problem” (p. 202), Brown exposes the fallacy that tax laws are race neutral and explains what Congress must do if it wants to have a just and equitable federal tax system instead of one that privileges whiteness and preexisting wealth.

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