Book Reviews

Taxed for Being Black

The long arc of racist plunder through local tax codes is shocking—or, well, maybe it’s not, really.

By Victor Ray

Tagged Racismtax reform

The Black Tax: 150 Years of Theft, Exploitation, and Dispossession in America by Andrew W. Kahrl • University of Chicago Press • 2024 • 456 pages • $35

“No taxation without representation” is often recounted as America’s founding mythological cry, repeated in elementary school lessons and pop-history airport books. White colonial subjects unhappy with parliamentary dues took their revenge by drowning crates of tea in Boston Harbor, baptizing their patriotism and birthing a nation. The new American creed included a commitment to government by consent of the governed and an abiding distrust of the state’s extractive power.

Andrew Kahrl’s The Black Tax: 150 Years of Theft, Exploitation, and Dispossession in America punctures this self-satisfied American mythologizing, showing that taxation without equal representation has often been the norm for Black Americans. A professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, Kahrl in his prior work examined land use and the dispossession of Black Americans. In The Black Tax, he shows that white America’s revolution-inspiring hatred for taxes was color-coded, and that white Americans who chafed at taxes shifted the fiscal burdens of civic life onto Black people.

The Black Tax is an ambitious and powerful book, a sweeping and damning indictment of structural racism in the tax system. It joins works like Dorothy Brown’s The Whiteness of Wealth in showing that tax structures themselves are normed to whiteness in ways that consistently harm Black Americans and contribute to the staggering racial wealth gap. Organized into five parts, The Black Tax traces the long arc of racist plunder, beginning in the post-Reconstruction South. Kahrl’s story then follows the great masses of Black people fleeing Southern racial terrorism into a Northern residential apartheid that is different in formal structure but nonetheless designed to streamline extraction. He next chronicles the Black Freedom Movement’s heroic (and halting) attempts to shake off economic oppression during the 1960s and early ’70s. Chapters on the Reagan era and the revanchist New Right—a movement arising partially in opposition to civil rights progress—show that white flight and tax flight were synonymous as ideas about racial deservingness unified disparate elements of the post-civil rights retrenchment. The backlash to civil rights gains sets the stage for concluding chapters on how contemporary financial speculation preys upon Black economic insecurity to extract profits.

Across eras, proceeds from a racialized tax system were forged into weapons wielded against Black Americans to strip away Black land and property. Racist tax systems thwarted Black striving through the mundane bureaucratic violence of inflated property assessments and unfair home foreclosures.

Kahrl begins at Reconstruction’s end in the late 1870s, as Black people’s political exclusion facilitated economic exploitation. Tax law was one mechanism of plunder. There was no federal income tax at the time, but Northern troops had barely headed home when former Confederate states began targeting newly emancipated Black Americans with poll taxes and tax schemes designed to reverse the meager Black gains of Reconstruction. Former plantation owners’ large land holdings received tax abatements, while, according to historian Eric Foner, poor Black farmers “paid taxes on virtually every piece of property they owned—tools, mules, even furniture.” Deceptive assessments that consistently undervalued white property while overvaluing Black land meant that Black taxpayers subsidized white social services, and that impoverished Black people were more likely to lose their land over a missed tax payment.

Unequal tax burdens were designed to thwart Black independence by making it impossible to get an economic foothold. Expropriation of Black land was also the goal, as lost Black property was often added to the holdings of the system’s white beneficiaries. The disparities generated by the tax system were not subtle. Kahrl cites the 1928 assessments in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where property owned by a Black land-development syndicate was marked up “to nearly three times its market value and twenty times the assessed value of comparable white lots.” These audacious injustices were perfectly legal and implemented by respectable white citizens firmly at the top of local social hierarchies.

Unequal tax burdens were designed to thwart Black independence.

Structurally racist policies denied Black people access to the goods of communal life—swimming pools, libraries, schools, and sanitation—that their taxes were disproportionately paying for. Jim Crow school funding epitomized this dynamic, as relatively lower assessments on white property meant they paid proportionately less into the system. White politicians colluded with school boards, redistributing the proceeds from Black taxpayers to comparatively over-resourced white schools. Such educational plunder was not a niche practice confined to backwards local clerks. It was institutionalized and brazen. Writes Kahrl: “Between 1880 and 1910, one economic historian estimated, ‘black taxpayers were subsidizing white school systems in every southern state.’” The substandard education Black students received from this system imposed a kind of double tax, as families attempted to make up for these imposed deficits by scrounging to supplement teachers’ salaries. Kahrl notes that Black families were “in a constant state of fundraising” because their taxes went to pay for white children’s school supplies. Libertarian fever dreams of taxes as theft were not entirely false, but they were profoundly misplaced. Herrenvolk democracy ensured that the state was not a race-neutral tax arbiter, and white representatives had no problem plundering Black children’s schools to augment their own children’s education.

Schooling was not the only public service subsidized by Black taxes that accrued to white Southerners’ collective benefit. Across the South, the quality or mere existence of municipal services followed the color line. Black communities were routinely denied equal access to basics like clean water, streetlights, and functioning sewage—services that their taxes paid for in white neighborhoods. Squalid living conditions in Black neighborhoods, like open sewers spilling onto unpaved roads when it rained, were caused by resource theft but blamed on Black residents’ supposed laziness and inability to self-govern. Thus, segregation facilitated resource extraction while creating the deteriorating social conditions whites used to justify segregation in the first place. Lacking municipal resources wasn’t just inconvenient—it was dangerous. Low water pressure in Black communities meant house fires couldn’t be put out, and poor sanitation could be the difference between an annoying infection and a fatal one.

Black families were also locked out of the financial benefits of speculative bonanzas that occasionally transformed Black landholdings into elite enclaves. In 1949, before becoming a seaside playground filled with miniature golf courses, fried seafood, and hangovers, South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island was almost entirely Black. But soon, elite resort development and a new bridge connecting the island to the mainland sent speculators racing. Investors and tax assessors colluded to rid Black people of land many had held in their families since emancipation. When deceptive investors could not convince Black folks to sell their land, the increased tax-assessed value of their formerly middling property could. Efforts to retain Black land and use it for development were often rebuffed, such as when the Emergency Land Fund—an organization of activists working to stop Southern Black families from hemorrhaging their land—couldn’t secure funding to develop one family’s 50 acres. With the Black owners excluded from the land rush, the group brokered a sale and helped the family get “fair compensation.” Black families in Hilton Head were similarly denied funding to develop smaller parcels and often priced out by tax increases. In the 1980s, after they gentrified paradise and came to outnumber Black residents, white residents voted to incorporate the island as a “limited service” municipality. This vote created a kind of municipal redlining, leaving Black residents with no services and a restricted say in their local democracy, while white enclaves had services provided by property associations.

The Jim Crow South held no monopoly on using the tax system to facilitate racialized plunder. Kahrl follows the masses of Black Americans fleeing the economic peonage of the South only to be met with the Northern urban apartheid. Segregation reduced housing supply and increased demand, making Black Americans concentrated in Northern ghettos easy targets for unscrupulous predators. Chicago’s Allan Blair, an attorney who made a fortune purchasing and reselling tax-delinquent properties, was among the most notorious. Blair recognized that Black Chicago was full of strivers who had done everything right and somehow clawed their way into homeownership despite rampant discrimination. Blair commodified Black misfortune, capitalizing on the illness or job loss that caused these homeowners to miss tax payments. Blair would often buy the title to tax-delinquent homes and attempt to sell the home back to the temporarily diminished striver. These homes were typically well kept, if modest. So, if the owner couldn’t meet Blair’s price, the home could easily be sold on the open market at considerable profit. Black economic precarity was a resource exploited for white gain. And tax buyers like Blair made windfall profits by purchasing houses out from under tax-delinquent families and evicting them if extortion failed.

Tax assessors could often discriminate without fear of the law, federal audits, or regulators.

The wave of Black-power mayors buoyed by 1960s civil rights victories promised to make the tax system more equitable. But these Black mayors were often constrained and thwarted by inherited financial structures, and by white residents and corporations used to a tax system that sucked the economic marrow out of Black communities. In Gary, Indiana, for example, Mayor Richard Hatcher’s commitment to Black power crashed against the steel industry’s fiscal power. At the time, U.S. Steel’s success was partially underwritten by corporate tax breaks (based on what Kahrl describes as “fraudulently low” assessments of the company’s property) that cost the city between $16 million and $30 million in annual revenue. Hatcher’s campaign promised to make the corporation pay its fair share, to help cover the roads, sewers, and public education that were necessary preconditions for business success. But after he won office in 1967, Hatcher’s attempts to follow through on his campaign promises were met with threats of corporate retreat that would further erode the local tax base and governing capacity. U.S. Steel used both public pressure and private coercion; it enlisted a local tax assessor who fudged his assessment, costing the city millions and forcing Hatcher to initiate layoffs and cut essential services like schooling and fire department budgets.

A number of factors allowed the tax system to escape the kind of governmental scrutiny that led to protections in other areas, such as the Voting Rights Act. Federal tax law empowered local officials and imposed few constraints, and local officials consistently used this discretion to undervalue white property and overvalue Black property. Tax assessments seldom make the news, so evaluations of local bureaucratic discrimination rarely garnered the movement-galvanizing attention that racist police brutality or denial of the franchise did. When Black communities did organize around unfair local tax policies, federal courts routinely deferred to states, confirming the truism that “states’ rights” often meant the right to discriminate. Local tax officials also mostly escaped the 1960s wave of civil rights laws designed to open up American public life. Freed from the binds of anti-discrimination law, tax officials evaluating Black or white people’s holdings rarely faced the same scrutiny as bosses in the workplace or employees in public accommodations—both spheres that answer to a regulatory bureaucracy and have spawned an industry of compliance agents. Tax assessors, in contrast, could often discriminate without fear of the law, federal audits, or regulators.

Kahrl’s recent history is similarly grim, as studies from the early 2000s show Black homes in Pittsburgh, New Haven, and Washington, D.C., were assessed at higher values than similar homes in white neighborhoods, funneling resources to white communities. In 2017, a joint investigation by the Chicago Tribune and the public-interest news organization ProPublica showed that Black homes were often assessed at more than their market value while white homes were underassessed. These assessments—coupled with evidence from Dorothy Brown showing the tax system is normed to assumptions about marriage and homeownership that are more likely to hold for white families, and data showing that the IRS is more likely to audit Black families than similarly situated whites—are a reminder that racial inequality is baked into American law in ways that are hidden from the beneficiaries and the general public and thus extremely difficult to dislodge.

The Black Tax will be read as the definitive refutation of one of white supremacy’s most potent falsehoods—the lie that white American taxpayers subsidize undeserving Black people. As Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us shows, the fear of allegedly unworthy nonwhites at the center of this lie has been used to justify a retreat from a shared commitment to public life; to evade the integration of pools, schools, and other services, many white Americans preferred to destroy these goods, harming even the white citizens who benefitted from the collective.

In graduate seminars, as we argued over theory and methods, my adviser sometimes noted that the book we were critiquing was what he called a “monster book,” one that had so reoriented the conversation that it was difficult to see reality as you had before reading it. The Black Tax is a monster book that, upon reading, makes the tax system’s contribution to structural racism impossible to ignore.

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Victor Ray is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Iowa and a Carr Center Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of On Critical Race Theory: Why it Matters & Why You Should Care.

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