30. The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)

The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)

With Guests:

  • Dorothy A. Brown, an Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University School of Law and an advocate for economic and social justice. Most recently, she is the author of The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It (Crown, March 2021). She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Bloomberg, and has written numerous opinion pieces addressing current events in the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN Opinion, Washington Post, Forbes, National Law Journal and Bloomberg View, to name a few.
  • Maura Quint, co-founder and executive director of Tax March, an organization that fights for an economy that works for everyone. She can be found talking taxes in publications such as the Hill, Ms. and Vox and can be heard on programs such as Pitchfork Economics and Stand Up with Pete Dominick. Quint also writes comedy and contributes to the Onion, The New Yorker, McSweeneys and other humor publications. She lives in Pennsylvania with her children and various part-time dogs.
  • Demi Stratmon, lead organizer with 51 for 51, a grassroots coalition to make D.C. the 51st state with 51 votes in the Senate. She works to combine the power of young advocates and national organizations to fight for representation for over 700,000 Washingtonians. In 2019, Demi traveled the country to make D.C. statehood a national issue, earning endorsements of 51 for 51’s mission from leaders including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Demi Stratmon is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College, majoring in government and minoring in Middle Eastern studies.

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In this Episode:

It’s tax season! It’s time to talk race, taxation and D.C. statehood. The U.S. tax system raises serious questions about equity and inclusion and—according to our guests—taxation is at the root of many social and economic injustices.

So, who does the U.S. tax code benefit? Who does it leave behind? How does racism manifest in the U.S. tax system? What role does D.C. statehood play in all of this? What roles can we expect the Biden administration to play in the fight for D.C. statehood and the larger fight for racial and economic justice?

Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendationor just want to say hi? Drop us a line at ontheissues@msmagazine.com.

Background Reading:

Transcript:

00:00:00 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to “On The Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show history matters, we examine the past as we pivot to the future. 

On today’s show we focus on the question: No taxation without representation? Rethinking statehood. The United States tax system raises serious questions about equity and inclusion from the tax march to DC statehood, taxation is at the root of many injustices and the target of many justice movements. So, who does the United States tax code benefit? Who does it leave behind? How does racism manifest in the US tax system or sexism? Does racism and taxation affect housing? What does a just taxation system look like for all Americans, and what role does DC statehood play in all of this?

Now, helping us to sort out these questions and how we should think about these issues and more are very special guests. I’m joined by Dorothy Brown. She is an Asa Griggs Candler professor of law at Emory University’s School of Law and an advocate for economic and social justice. Most recently she is the author of The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans–and How We Can Fix It

I’m also joined by Maura Quint. She is a co-founder and the Executive Director of Tax March, an organization that fights for an economy that works for everyone. 

And last but not least I’m joined by Demi Stratmon. She is a lead organizer with 51 for 51, a grassroots coalition to make DC the 51st state with 51 votes in the Senate. She works to combine the power of young advocates and national organizations to fight for representation for over 700 thousand Washingtonians. 

So, Professor Brown, I’d like to begin with you. I hold in my hand The Whiteness of Wealth:  How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans–and How We Can Fix It. Just to level set, tell us how long you’ve been working on this book.

00:02:34 Dorothy Brown:

I’ve been researching on race, class, and tax for about 25 years and the idea for the book first came to me in 2008 and over time the book idea changed, but I’ve been thinking about this book for at least a decade.

00:02:50 Michele Goodwin:

So, you said that it came to you in 2008. What inspired that, what was the triggering moment where you thought all right, I need to unpack this for Americans and for the world what’s happening in terms of whiteness and wealth?

00:03:05 Dorothy Brown:

Well, I decided to do a trade press as opposed to an academic press because of the hostility that I faced with tax law professors simply not engaging the work, dismissing the work, being rude to the work, but when I would talk to general audiences, they were hungry and wanted more and I had a lightbulb moment that said we will stop talking to academics, we will start talking to real people and I decided to do the trade press. Easier said than done because you have to get an agent and you have to get a book deal, but I was full speed ahead on a trade press as of 2008, honestly.

00:03:49 Michele Goodwin:

So, and what inspired it? I mean, before that time were you thinking about a connection between race and tax system or was there something that happened in your own family or something that was…how did you come to the idea?

00:04:05 Dorothy Brown:

Okay. So, Jerome Culp, the late, great Jerome Culp who was a Black law professor at Duke wrote an article that said, how do you know if there isn’t a race in tax issue if you don’t look? And I had never thought of race in tax, and I respected and admired him so much and he always made me think about race differently, so when I read that article and saw that line my eyes like jumped out of my head. And I picked up the phone and called him and said Jerome, I don’t know what I’m going to do but I’m going to do something, and I wound up, the first thing I ever did was a book chapter in a book called Taxing America that was edited by Karen Brown and Mary Lou Fellows who were both at the time Minnesota law professors.

So, Jerome inspired me to write about race in tax but it was truly a difficult task because what I didn’t know when I told him I was going to do this was the IRS doesn’t publish statistics by race, so I want to write a book or an article even about race in tax and I can’t go to the IRS to get the statistics. So that was the first wakeup call for me as to one, how necessary the project was because if nobody’s looking we’d never know, and how difficult the task would be and how I basically had to turn into some kind of detective to look for similar statistics or similar databases that I could then use to get proxy information.

00:05:40 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, what’s interesting here is that you shared that you received such pushback over the past decades in trying to surface this and I want to share for our listening audience some of the names of the chapters in the book, and we’ll come back to some of this. Chapter one, Married While Black. We’ve heard of driving while Black, we’ve even heard of walking while Black, to be honest. We’ve heard of little kids selling water while Black, too, but married while Black, that’s a unique one. All right, and then you have chapter two, Black House/White Market. Now that’s a spin for you. The Great Un-Equalizer, Chapter three. Chapter four, The Best Jobs, just curious to think about jobs and taxation. And then you turn to Legacy, and then What’s Next, and from what I gather with the book you tell intimate stories including your family’s own story and their involvement in the tax system.

So, before I turn to our other guests if you could maybe share just a little bit about the personal side of this for you, and you do dedicate the book to Miss Dottie…

00:06:52 Dorothy Brown:

Yes. Yes, to my mother. So, it’s my parents’ tax return that subconsciously got me thinking about race and tax. So, I was an investment banker on Wall Street, I’m doing my taxes, I’m doing their taxes like every good daughter who has an LMM in tax, you do your parents tax returns, right? So, I’m looking at their taxes and my taxes and I myself make as much money as they combined and under our progressive tax system I should be paying a whole lot of taxes and they should not be paying that much in taxes. But the math didn’t work out and I always felt they were paying too much but I was doing everything right, I was doing everything that the law was telling me to do.

And every April 15 I would do their taxes and go something’s wrong, I can’t figure it out, next year. April 15, something’s wrong, I can’t figure it out. So, fast forward. I become a law professor and I read Jerome’s article and that line and I go, race in tax? The very first thing I wrote about was how married couples can have a tax cut when they get married, called the marriage bonus, or pay higher taxes when they get married, called the marriage penalty. White married couples are more likely to get a tax cut because they have two spouses that contribute very different amounts to household income, like 100 to zero or 90 to 10. That couple when they get married gets a tax cut. 

Couples like my parents who have income close together, like 50/50 or 40/60, for decades their taxes went up. My parents paid more in taxes because they were married to each other, contributing roughly equal amounts they paid the marriage penalty and Black couples are more likely to be in marriage penalty households.

So, the first thing I ever wrote unraveled the mystery I call it of my parents tax returns.

00:09:01 Michele Goodwin:

Well, this also quite honestly sounds like a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow type of mystery, so let’s find the hidden vestiges of American enslavement and Jim Crow.

Maura, I want to turn to you. You’re the Executive Director of Tax March. Can you tell us a little bit more a about that and reflect on what Professor Brown has just shared with us because I’m sure that these are the kinds of concerns that you’re concerned about as well. 

00:09:32 Maura Quint:

Absolutely. Yes, thank you so much, Professor Brown. I’m very, very excited to read your book. I think it is vital and wonderful that it exists. And congratulations as well. Yes, Tax March started in 2017. We started as one of the marches, the resistance marches in response to Donald Trump and it started out of a Tweet. Someone wrote, the next march following the women’s march should be on April 15. We should demand Donald Trump release his tax returns, and people started responding immediately. There was just a tremendous amount of energy around it, people started organizing their own marches, they started pulling together communities. Some of them were people who had been doing this for some time, others had never done any sort of activism at all before and they just threw themselves into it which was incredible to see.

30. The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)
The 2017 Tax March in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons)
30. The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)
(Wikimedia Commons)

And so we have these massive, massive demonstrations on April 15, 2017, that were very specifically purposed. They were meant to demand Donald Trump release tax returns so that we could have some oversight on what the President was doing. But as we started having more conversations we really quickly realized that it was so much bigger than that. It really wasn’t just hey, we should know what the President’s tax returns are, although we should, that’s important. It’s vital that the people have some oversight over the presidency, but Donald Trump in particular is a very wealthy white man and when we start looking at his taxes we actually start to see so much more. 

We start to see exactly all of the ways that he has benefitted from decades and decades of tax code that have absolutely been set to make someone like him more wealthy while the rest of us are not getting any wealthier, and so we started to investigate that and it was really fantastic because we had so many people interested and involved in these marches and I wasn’t entirely sure how quickly they were going to sort of be interested in looking more into the tax code. There was so much energy there. People were so interested, they were so excited, and I think that a lot of this, too, with what Professor Brown was saying in terms of publishing in academia where you’re getting this constant barrage of you know, negative responses or being ignored out of hand. 

But when you look to who actually wants to hear about this you do have to take it to people because for the most part the majority of this country has been shut out of the tax conversation and economic conversations and so much of what has happened to date has been made specifically to make sure that people feel uncomfortable talking economics. They don’t know enough, they don’t have a degree, and so there is this sense that they shouldn’t have any say, they shouldn’t worry about it, they should just sort of go back to doing what they’re doing and don’t worry, the people in charge are taking care of it.

There’s that kind of a sense and so…

00:12:43 Michele Goodwin:

On that note, on your Tax March website you say that Tax March organizers have led on many fights including the push to reveal, to repeal…reveal and repeal because we are talking about mysteries here, the 2017 GOP tax scam that you call it that gave massive tax breaks to billionaires and wealthy corporations, the “tax the rich” movement and the work to get immediate COVID relief into the hands of millions of people in the country affected by a devastating pandemic. 

So, tell us a little bit more about the massive tax breaks that billionaires and wealthy corporations received that you all are fighting against.

00:13:36 Maura Quint:

Yeah. In particular what you just mentioned is the 2017 TCJA, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The Republicans had this wonderful moment where they had a trifecta of power. They could really push through any legislation they wanted and their one overriding priority was this massive, massive tax cut that they were giving to the wealthiest. That was the thing that they needed to do and so the TCJA was a huge, huge, a 1.9 trillion-dollar giveaway to corporations and the wealthy and when we look at where those tax cuts went, 83 percent of the benefits went to the wealthiest 1 percent of families.

Now when we look at who are the wealthiest one percent of families, you are seeing a tremendous amount of white men getting these benefits. That’s who it’s going to. 

00:14:34 Michele Goodwin: 

So, now I want to come back to you, Professor Brown, and then we’re going to join Demi in this conversation and talk about DC and statehood. So, Professor Brown, in an article published in The Atlantic you write, “Changes to the US tax code typically benefit white tax payers…” This is just what we’ve heard from Maura. “…while putting Black tax payers at a further disadvantage, even when Black and white Americans have made the same life choices.” I’m really curious when you break this down for us. You say that “Subsidies for home ownership benefit white homeowners more than Black homeowners.” Okay, break that down for us. 

“Tax breaks for workers benefit white workers more than Black workers, and tax reform has always been a fight over which white Americans get tax cuts with Black Americans paying the price,” all of which you document in this book. So, can you help walk us through that because that’s like mines going off all over the place and I’m sure there are people saying that can’t be, that the tax code doesn’t say we support racism and that’s what this document is. So, tell us about these chapters where you write about this.

00:15:52 Dorothy Brown:

Yes. So, first of all I want to pick up on something Maura said and tie it into what you just said. I will tell you that the Black wealthy do not look like the white wealthy. So when we talk about tax cuts to the top one percent, if you see any Black Americans in that category, they’re not going to benefit to the same extent their white peers are because even the wealthiest Black Americans don’t get their wealth the way white Americans do which is basically tied to the stock market. Okay, so even wealthy Blacks don’t invest in the stock market to the same extent that their white peers do. 

Okay, so you know, I see Maura and I say you’re right and I square you, right? So, it’s like yes twice. So, how is it that subsidies for home ownership benefit white homeowners but not Black homeowners? So, this is one of those revelations over time that I came to after studying any number of provisions. So, we have obviously the mortgage interest deduction, right? Well, with the 2017 Tax Act most people don’t itemize anymore, in fact…so you only get a mortgage interest deduction if you itemize your deductions but if your standard deduction is higher you take the higher standard deduction amount. 

Well, after the standard deduction was expanded and increased in the 2017 Tax Act there are only 10 percent of Americans who itemize. Only 10 percent of homeowners who are benefiting. So, the mortgage interest deduction isn’t like the big subsidy, it’s the tax-free gain. You sell your home, if you’re single you can get 250 thousand dollars of gain tax free. If you’re married half a million dollars tax free. 

00:17:42 Michele Goodwin: 

Half a million.

00:17:45 Dorothy Brown:

Half a million. 

00:17:44 Michele Goodwin: 

Half a million.

00:17:46 Dorothy Brown:

Yes, my friend, half a million tax free. So you say well, Dorothy, if you’re a homeowner you can get that if you’re Black or white. Yeah, but white Americans and Black Americans own homes in different neighborhoods and the value of those homes depend upon how many Black people live in the neighborhood. So, white homeowners tend to live in all white or almost all white neighborhoods with very few Black Americans. Those neighborhoods are prized by prospective white homeowners and valued the highest. Living in that neighborhood means you’re going to get a lot of tax-free gain when you sell. 

If you live where most Black Americans live, racially-diverse neighborhood or all-Black neighborhood, those homes do not appreciate as much as white homes in white neighborhoods do, therefore yeah, you may get a gain but it’s not going to be significant. And worse, Black homeowners are more likely to sell their home for a loss. Forget gain, a loss and you go yeah, but you know, we know tax breaks are on stock, you could take a deduction for losses. Yeah, you can on stocks but not on homes. There is no tax deduction when you sell your home for a loss which means Black Americans get less gain, more likely to get a non-tax-deductible loss. White Americans likely to get huge amount of gains. 

We have home ownership operating one way for white Americans and very differently for Black Americans.

00:19:31 Michele Goodwin:

So, part of what you’re saying reminds me of the things that people don’t talk about and don’t know about such as government, Federal government supporting redlining and the…

00:19:44 Dorothy Brown:

Yes.

00:19:45 Michele Goodwin:

… institutional and structural systems that create this because I can imagine that these conferences where you were speaking where people were saying no, no, no, they were looking for show us the legislators in Congress or at the IRS who are white supremacists and who are saying I’m baking in some white supremacy into all of this, and aren’t you saying that you know, they didn’t even have to because the systems already existed that created separate but equal societies, that redlined people then that created the kind of social structures that just simply resulted in racism? Or are you saying something different?

30. The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)
A 1936 map showing redlining in the city of Philadelphia (Wikimedia Commons)

00:20:26 Dorothy Brown:

So, I will say first I’m not a historian. I want historians to take my book and do some archival work. But I’ve got some receipts and let’s take this gain…

00:20:40 Michele Goodwin:

Show some receipts. Show some receipts.

00:20:44 Dorothy Brown:

Let’s take this gain from income, this tax-free gain. It dates back to 1951. Who in 1951…well, first of all in 1950 for the first time ever the majority of white Americans became homeowners. In 1940 they weren’t, in 1950 they were and suddenly in 1951 the defense industry is gearing up, they need people to work, they don’t want selling homes to be a bar so the National Association of Realtors, you know, those racist people that helped facilitate the redlining? They testify oh, yes, we need to make it easy for people to sell their homes. 

In 1951 a tax subsidy for home ownership is a pure subsidy for white Americans, so they don’t even have to say it’s for white people because everybody knows it’s for white people. Who’s the defense industry hiring? White people. Who’s going for those jobs? White people. So, you know, in the legislative history that I uncovered they never say white people but they don’t have to because 1951? We don’t even have Brown v. Board of Ed much less any of the civil rights act, and most of these tax provisions date back decades.

00:22:08 Michele Goodwin:

Wow. That’s some heaviness that you’re laying on us right there. Since we’re talking about structures and we’re talking about DC where all of this magic sauce is made, Demi, I’d like to bring you into this conversation and then we’re going to just broaden it, talk about taxation, DC statehood. So, Demi, you’re lead organizer with 51 for 51, an organization that urges full representation for more than 700 thousand residents of the District of Columbia. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re hearing this conversation and about the work that your organization does?

00:22:52 Demi Stratmon:

Yeah, so thank you for having me. I would like to say that this conversation kind of brings together our fight for statehood together, discussing how Black and brown people have been disenfranchised throughout politics and just in general throughout the government structure and taxation. Here we have…our license plates say Taxation without Representation and that just brings it together full circle that we’ve been struggling here to fight a system that’s blatantly non democratic, but blatantly against a place that is very diverse, the place that if it was a state would be the only place to have a plurality of Black people in their state. And it’s the truth that we’re fighting the system that has been here like said before, for decades. It’s just a little bit more blunt here, if we’re being quite honest.

30. The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)
A District of Columbia license plate (Wikimedia Commons)

00:23:55 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah, in fact the population of Washington, DC, is significant, especially considering that it surpasses the population of Wyoming with its 578 thousand residents, and Vermont with its 623 thousand residents. It’s on par with states like Alaska which has a population of over 700 thousand, North Dakota. So, tell us a little bit about that in terms of just the comparison because when one looks at the raw numbers, DC has a greater population than there are states that have two senators. 

00:24:33 Demi Stratmon:

Exactly. So a lot of people to kind of you know, throw off the momentum and kind of blatantly just kind of suppress their racism and try to throw out big facts, say well, it’s too small you know, but like you said, we have 700 thousand plus residents in DC and that topples Wyoming, Vermont, and you know, what’s the difference is that we’re mostly Black and brown, you know? That’s the key difference and that’s why people feel like the system in place is appropriate because yeah, we have a lot of people, our population is bigger but the population of people there, when you go into the demographics, that’s when people kind of want to sway and say well, it doesn’t really matter, or just simply spew out false narratives.

00:25:24 Michele Goodwin:

Well, so let’s talk a little bit about how this matters just in terms of legislation, so one of your colleagues has recently written about when the District of Columbia seeks to articulate its interest that one can have Congress overturning its legislation, so whether we’re talking about matters involving gun violence, police violence, reproductive rights, and so many other issues, is it the position of your organization that look, these issues matter to Washington, DC, and without DC having its place in the Senate then its issues are just simply not heard and even worse, its issues can in fact be silenced.

00:26:15 Demi Stratmon:

Yeah. No way to put it but tyranny, to have other members coming from places and they’re representing their constituents just to know that a Senator from Texas or Mississippi can simply say no to DC residents, that have no background, have no understanding of the community, or simply not even want to engage with DC locals. But when we present legislation when our community has agreed upon a certain system we want to see instituted, when we have a vision of what we want DC to look like, we all know at the end of the day people who have never been engaged with our communities or can quite simply not even care about what’s going on here can simply say no, or actually let’s do it this way.

It’s very common…well, I wouldn’t say it’s common but we’ve seen it happen with things that were very important to DC locals such as the needle exchange program when we were trying to reduce the rates of HIV in our community, or when we talk about gun reform and how we tried to pass some of the most progressive ways to stop you know, people from suffering from gun violence in DC and just to have that shut down, and now our communities are still suffering because at that point DC residents can still be subject to the harms of you know, what Maryland has in place, or West Virginia or get arms from different states. It’s just a way to stop our progress and stop how we envision DC and what we want to see happen.

00:27:57 Michele Goodwin:

So, Maura, I’d like to turn to you on this, so how has this resonated for your organization? Has your organization been involved in the fight involving Washington, DC, and one person, one vote? That would seem to matter to tax.

00:28:14 Maura Quint:

A little bit. It’s one of those key things. Absolutely. The license plates are very pointed and for a reason. It is incredibly important that people have representation. From an example here with taxes, the 2017 TCJA, one of the things it brought was opportunity zones, and opportunity zones were meant to help Black and brown communities. They were investments in Black and brown communities, that’s how they were sold, but what they really were, were just massive, massive tax write-offs to wealthy predominantly white developers who were then incentivized to do whatever they wanted really in these communities, and in particular they are able to do a lot of things in DC.

DC had no vote on TCJA. They did not bring opportunity zones to life, they had no ability to speak out against them, and now this legislation has opened the door for these developers to come in and completely reshape and gentrify sections of DC in particular. So, it’s very, very important that people have the opportunity to be represented, otherwise these systems that are in place and that have been in place will continue to be perpetuated.

00:29:36 Michele Goodwin:

You know, and let’s talk about what this has meant also during COVID, Demi. So, during the pandemic Washingtonians received less than half, is that right? Of the funding that full-fledged states secured, even though DC has a larger population than at least a couple of the states that we’ve mentioned?

00:29:59 Demi Stratmon:

Michele, that’s correct, but I would also like to bring in another point that DC residents pay some of the highest Federal taxes in our country and when you have events like this happen and when you’re distributing funds we also know that we’re going to be the last place that people are thinking of, that these representatives, that these senators are speaking of or even caring about because first they have to make sure their constituents are okay. They have to make sure that the people that put them in office are happy with what they’re getting, so that’s how that cycle works.

We are left at the end of the table every time, but we’re taxed heavily and no one brings that up in any of those discussions.

00:30:45 Michele Goodwin:

You know, Professor Brown, this brings me back to your book because, as Demi has done this level setting with us, that DC is predominantly Black and brown or has a plurality of Black and brown, and she’s just laid a whole lot on us about how they’re taxed more, they don’t get senators and what not. It seems to me like I mean, you’ve got other books that you’re writing but it seems to me like another chapter in the book. What’s your sense of that when you hear what Demi is saying, and then I have a question for you with regard to the Great Un-Equalizer chapter.

00:31:19 Dorothy Brown:

So, I hear Demi and I go yeah, Black people paying more taxes and getting less services, that’s the story of my book, right? And it’s historical, when we were paying property taxes for a separate and unequal school system that Andrew Kahrl, the UVA historian has written about how not only did Black tax payers pay more for less, their tax dollars were subsidizing white-only school districts. So, as bad as you think it is, it’s always worse.

00:32:00 Michele Goodwin:

That’s pretty chilling when you say as bad as it is it actually is worse. All right. Well, so then many people will say well, the equalizer is education and you did mention Brown v. Board of Education earlier in this conversation, so there will be those that say but look, there was Brown in 1954…

00:32:25 Dorothy Brown:

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby.

00:32:27 Michele Goodwin:

Yes, exactly. Exactly. That’s exactly what they say. There’s a long way, and so doesn’t that count? You’re talking about racism but there is access to education which sets a level playing field for all people. So, Professor Brown, what’s your response to that?

00:32:45 Dorothy Brown:

The median household wealth of a high school dropout is greater than the household wealth of a college graduate, of a Black college graduate, so that’s the…

00:32:55 Michele Goodwin:

Oh, oh, wait, wait, wait. Would you repeat that? Okay. Okay, like…

00:33:00 Dorothy Brown:

White high school dropout has more wealth than a Black college graduate. So that’s the first thing I will say, okay? The second thing I will say is college is told to us that it is the great equalizer and Black Americans believe in the value of education, but because of systemic racism 60 percent of Black Americans who go to college do not graduate, but they do leave with debt that is then a drag on their financial futures forever because the key to a college degree is it positions you for a better-paying job. But 60 percent of Black students who start college don’t finish it. Those who do finish it leave with more debt than their white peers and we give very limited tax subsidy to student debt, but we give lots of tax subsidy to mortgage debt, but I digress. 

30. The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon)
College graduates in 2008 (Steven Depolo / Flickr)

You also see Black college graduates are more likely to send money to their parents or grandparents or relatives, but white college graduates are more likely to receive money from their parents and grandparents. So, just because Black people have a college degree does not mean we’ve made it because at the end of the day we are still Black in a wealth-building system designed for white America. 

00:34:39 Michele Goodwin:

All right, so you’ve disabused the audience of things that people believed in, right? Just work hard and get a good education and then get married. 

00:34:51 Dorothy Brown:

Oh, boy.

00:34:52 Michele Goodwin:

Own your own home. Oh, okay. What I said about marriage? Oh, okay.

00:34:55 Dorothy Brown:

Oh, boy.

00:34:56 Michele Goodwin:

People don’t fight it hard about marriage. Now, what do you have to say about marriage?

00:35:00 Dorothy Brown:

So, I say oh, boy, because when Black people get married we don’t get a tax cut, when white people get married they do get a tax cut. But think about two college graduates who are Black and get married. That’s when I said oh, boy, because if they stayed single they would have more of a interest deduction for their student loans. But if they get married it gets cut significantly. 

So, for example, I can take up to 25 hundred dollars of my student loan interest as a tax break. When I get married I can take up to 25 hundred dollars of my student loan as a tax break, so two people who before they got married could take 25 over here, 25 over here for a total of 5, they get married? No, they can only take 25. 

00:35:50 Michele Goodwin:

Sugar snaps. 

00:35:51 Dorothy Brown:

Yes. So, that’s why I said when you said married I’m like oh, boy. 

00:35:55 Michele Goodwin:

Right. You know, like people leave this show depressed, although there’s a lot of humor and laughing because you all have brought receipts, like you all are just dropping so much. This is going to be great. Anybody who’s teaching tax out there, this is the episode you want to share with your students. So, here’s a level-setting question. What should the Federal government do about these issues? So, Maura, I want to start with you. So, you know, we’ve got a new administration in and Biden and Harris, and what should they be doing to address this, what should Congress be doing to address these issues?

00:36:36 Maura Quint:

Yeah. Well, there’s a lot that needs to be done, definitely. There’s so many changes that need to be made but you know, we have seen at least a good first step here with the American Rescue Plan. That was a huge investment in households that actually needed to be invested in as opposed to traditionally these investments into the wealthy. But you might be familiar with the Black Women Best framework? It’s been put forth by a number of folks, especially including Janelle Jones, she’s now the Chief Economist of the Department of Labor.

This is a framework that basically says when we invest in Black women’s wellbeing we just accidentally raise everyone else along with them and if we put the focus there we can uplift society as a whole, and I think that that is a very important framework that we should be looking into. I think obviously we need a ton more investment and one of the things that we’re doing with Tax March is pushing back hard against all of these sort of deficit fear mongering that likes to come out anytime we start talking about investments. It never comes out when we start talking about spending money on tax cuts for rich, white people or spending money on war. Then no problem, we ignore the deficit, but the moment we start talking about investing in people and especially investing in Black and brown communities suddenly there’s a deficit fear.

So, some of the work that we are doing is to try and push that aside and point that out for what it is which is just a corporatist fear-mongering perspective that is actually completely unhelpful for the well-being and the benefit of all of us.

00:38:17 Michele Goodwin:

And Demi, I’d like to put that same question to you. In thinking about a new administration in DC, what’s your sense of what should happen, what can happen with this administration to help the cause for a DC statehood?

00:38:37 Demi Stratmon:

So, I believe Dorothy brought this up that when Republicans controlled government they had their priorities and they set out to do them, and their priorities were in the vein of creating a wealth gap. I think right now Democrats are in the same position to structure government in a way that they would like to see with now controlling the House, the Senate, and the Executive Branch. If we do not use this opportunity to do what the individuals who put these leaders in office do which was progressive reform. Black women did put Democrats back on top, we cannot ignore this, and they are seeking racial justice, they are seeking progressive change in things such as criminal justice and our judiciary system. 

We have to figure out why we’re being so slow on these acts towards progress when it’s simply leveling out the playing field and that is in regards to DC statehood as well. There’s no reason why any American should be against taxation without representation. It’s no way. This is what our country was founded upon. So, if you sit there and if you say I believe in democracy, I believe in why our country was founded, you cannot sit there and also ignore the 700 thousand plus residents in DC who are in the back yard and who are in the Capital of your great country and your great nation and just say well, they don’t have to be represented, they can still contribute to you know, our system, our economy, our military. 

But I think right now what we have to do is keep our elected officials in check. I feel like we have to bring up what’s going on. We have to make sure that they understand this system was not created to be equal, so every day we are fighting to make it more equal because this is what we started with. And to be in a position where you think everything is going well, and to sit in front of your fellow Americans and say, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do to make sure everyone can live the same way here, that’s a lie and it’s going to be hard work to restore a broken system. 

However, you cannot…it’s too much going on now to say that you’re blinded or that you didn’t know it was happening. Dorothy and Maura pointed out a thousand more things. 

00:41:32 Michele Goodwin:

So, Professor Brown, your book and numerous articles over a span of over two decades speak to a broken system. You turn this in like in a kaleidoscope over and over again showing different reflections on this and so now that there is a Biden/Harris administration do you hold out hope? What do you think that they can accomplish? Can you tell us a little bit more? 

00:42:05 Dorothy Brown:

Yes, so I want to pick up where Demi left off. We have to hold them accountable, so the first Executive Order that President Biden signed was a racial equity order and he said across the government he wanted a focus on racial equity and he created this Data Working Group that is supposed to dis-aggregate data by race across government agencies. The first thing I want is race in tax data from the government. No one should have to spend 25 freaking years figuring this stuff out.

But here’s my problem, right? That gives me hope but here’s my problem. The people at Treasury who are assigned to this Data Working Group have zero experience with race and tax. So, I don’t think his rhetoric is going to be able to match the work without this agitation, this outside push that Demi is talking about. Yes, you’ve got this Executive Order but there’s also been Biden administration folks who have talked about tax reform in the last week or so and not one of them talked about racial equity. So, there’s still this mindset that taxes have nothing to do with race, that we have to break. 

So, I’m optimistic with that Executive Order but the devil’s in the detail and the execution as I’m looking at it gives me serious concern.

00:43:38 Michele Goodwin:

Well, that’s interesting because, is it because this involves numbers that people think that race isn’t involved with tax? I mean, why is it that people think that somehow race has no influence, impact with regard to tax? So, what do you think’s happening there? Why is that, Professor Brown? 

00:43:59 Dorothy Brown:

I think part of it has to do with who is gravitating into tax law. I think most white Americans and most white tax scholars accept class but not race, and their immediate pushback is, there’s nothing in the code that says anything about race so it can’t be racist—which is white ignorance, right? Most white law professors, including tax law professors are completely clueless when it come to systemic racism. But since they believe they’re experts in all things, they know Dorothy can’t know what she’s talking about, it’s class and not race.

So, part of the problem is white Americans get race in the criminal justice context. They get race when they can see it. You can’t see taxes the same way, and when a Black woman says there’s racism in the tax code they go, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I know what I’m talking about. So, there’s this resistance I think out of ignorance and you know, the nicest spin I can put on it is resistance out of ignorance.

00:45:16 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. Well, you know, we’ve reached this time in our show where I just think we need to add on an extra hour but unfortunately we don’t have it. So, one of the things that we do as we bring our show to a close is that we ask about silver linings going forward and we’ve heard a lot, including things that make us think about the very origin story of our nation, whether it’s the origin of DC or the origins involving slavery and Jim Crow, and of course, a system that has been unequal in so many ways, even amongst white people. 

But all of that said, do you see some form of a silver lining going forward, and I’m going to start with you, Maura.

00:46:03 Maura Quint:

I do. You know, predominantly because even myself four years ago, I didn’t know anything about economics or the economy, I had no clue. I dove into this without having an economics degree and just sort of listening to people and reading and paying attention, and I’m so involved and invested, but more importantly what I’m seeing is so many other people really care and want to participate and I think that that itself is making a lot of change because this world that people felt really shut out of for so long is now opening up and we have things like Professor Brown’s fantastic book that is bringing these topics to people and also you know, speaking their stories which is so important because so much of what economy is, is just hey, what’s your situation? What’s your family’s situation? What about the people near you, the people that you know? 

If you are paying attention to that and you’re talking about that you’re already more involved in the economy than most economists want you to think you are. So, I think that there’s a lot of silver lining and I think it’s really in the interests that people have and so many people showing up on all of these issues. So, that is what I’m excited for and what I think is a positive.

00:47:25 Michele Goodwin:

And you, Professor Brown, what do you see as a silver lining?

00:47:28 Dorothy Brown:

So, I want to pick up on Maura’s point about more people getting involved and I think the summer of 2020 with the murder of George Floyd in a pandemic that got this multiracial coalition to the street gives me a lot of hope. I heard this summer in June Senator Sherrod Brown in a Senate Finance Committee actually say one of the areas we haven’t examined is systemic racism in tax. Now I fell off my chair and then I got back up on it and I said to myself, we got it, right? We are making some progress. 

People, white people. Let me be clear, Black Americans have always known something was off. They may not have known what it was but they knew something was off. White Americans have basically been oblivious to all of this. In the summer of 2020 there were a lot of white Americans who took the time to educate themselves and say this is messed up and I want to fix it. 

So, I am comforted by the numbers that were in the street and I’m comforted by the percentage of white Americans that say racism is a big problem and they didn’t say that a year ago, so I think that we are in a moment. We are in a moment where we can actually make real change, but not if we sleep. We have to be watchful and mindful and not think because we have Democrats in the White House everything’s fixed. No, no. No, no, no, the status quo is deep and the status quo wants to support itself. 

So, if you’re going to upend the status quo which is what I’m arguing for and Maura’s arguing for and Demi’s arguing for, then we’ve got to fight and this is our moment.

00:49:24 Michele Goodwin:

And actually on that note, and I’m going to get to you, Demi, next. You say in your book on page 225, you close off with saying, “In other words you are in charge,” meaning the public, “and taking inspiration from Miss Dottie,” your mom, “and the beautiful clothes she made, it’s time to tailor an American dream that includes each and every one of us.” How powerful that is. And Demi, what about you, what do you see as a silver lining? 

00:49:58 Demi Stratmon:

What I see as a silver lining are all the young people who are tired. I’ve been inspired by high school students you know, reaching out to me and people who are just beginning college, and I don’t know what I was doing my freshman year but I didn’t think that I could change you know, how this country treated people and the way that they’re tired of the system, how they want to completely change what we think as our democracy is super inspiring. How they’re unafraid and unapologetically contacting their elected officials every day about the issues that they care about, how they’re on campus protesting you know, institutions all day long.

They inspire me and I feel like they are the silver lining. Yeah, so young people everywhere, they inspire me.

00:50:58 Michele Goodwin:

I want to thank each of you for joining us at Ms. Magazine today to break it all down about tax, about tax wealth, whiteness, racism, and how we can forge a better system for us all, including DC statehood. 

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On The Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guests, Professor Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint, and Demi Stratmon for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you will join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is with very special guests tackling issues that are relevant to you. We want for you to join us at Msmagazine.com for more information on what we discussed today, and if you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to “On The Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. 

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On The Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Mariah Lindsay. We thank Oliver Haug for research and digital assistance. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.