'The Whiteness Of Wealth' Probes Why Black Americans Pay Higher Taxes

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Host Peter O’Dowd speaks with Emory tax law professor Dorothy Brown about her new book “The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans – and How We Can Fix It.”

She argues in the book that the U.S. systems for generating wealth inherently favor white Americans while also penalizing Black Americans.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Whiteness Of Wealth’

By Dorothy Brown

I became a tax lawyer to get away from race.

I was born and raised in the South Bronx in New York City. My father, James, was a plumber who worked, without benefits, for a private company, because black men couldn’t join the union that controlled the good public-sector jobs. My mother, Dottie, was a nurse and a seamstress who had left her job as a garment factory “floor girl” because she knew she could do better work than the white seamstresses who got all the opportunities. We lived in a three-family house at 1061 Morris Avenue, purchased with the help of a $6,000 loan from my father’s white boss, and rented the upper and middle apartments to black tenants who became more like family. We didn’t have a lot, but we had food on the table and clothes on our backs (handmade by my mother, of course), and my sister and I had a little bit of spending money. My parents had lived through the Jim Crow era and faced laws dictating what they could earn, what they could own, and where they could live, but they were determined that their children’s generation would get educated and live on their own terms.

Emory tax law professor and author Dorothy Brown. (Ann Watson)

As a little girl, I believed that was a possibility.

Then, when I was around nine or ten years old, I left the house one day with my mother. I held her hand as we walked to the corner of 166th Street and waited for the light to change. A police car drove by, and as it passed I spotted a handcuffed black man in the backseat. Sitting beside him was a white officer, beating him. It was broad daylight.

I turned in horror to confirm that my mother was seeing this, too. In a low, emotionless voice, she said, “That happens sometimes.”

My eyes returned to the car. The handcuffed man and I made eye contact. As the police car turned the corner, I held his gaze until I could no longer see him.

Normally my mother was no shrinking violet when it came to fighting racism. My sister and I would cringe whenever a white store manager chose to wait on a white customer before us; we knew what was about to happen, and it happened a lot.

“Excuse me!” my mother would say. “We were here first!” She would not use her inside voice, and she wouldn’t budge from the head of the line. Standing her ground—that’s Dottie Brown.

So when I saw that man in the back of the police car, my mother’s reaction told me there was not a thing either one of us could do about it.

And that’s how I became a tax lawyer. Because I learned early on that people might look at me and see black, but as far as tax law was concerned, the only color that mattered was green. I attended Fordham University and majored in accounting, then got my law degree from Georgetown and earned a master’s in tax law from NYU. Tax law was about math, and I was sure I’d chosen a career where race had nothing to do with my work.

I have never been more wrong about anything in my life.

From the book THE WHITENESS OF WEALTH: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans – and How We Can Fix It by Dorothy A. Brown. Copyright © 2021 by Dorothy A. Brown. Used by permission of Crown Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

This segment airs on May 17, 2021. Audio will be available after the broadcast.

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