Cover Image: The Whiteness of Wealth

The Whiteness of Wealth

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Important and timely read! Thank you for the opportunity to read an advance copy of The Whiteness of Wealth.
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The part of the title that made me decide to read this book was "and How We Can Fix It."  I am no expert on taxes or on racism, so it was nice to be able to learn from someone who knows a lot about both.  
Everything in the book was well documented and researched, and there were many examples.  There are chapters on filing taxes married or single, housing, jobs, education, etc.  I liked that at the end of each chapter there were some suggestions on how to improve things.  None of the suggestions are easy - but I hope our country can progress in positive ways so that things can be truly fair to everyone.
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This is an excellent look at the tax system in the U.S. and how it came to discriminate against Black Americans. While detailing the history, Dr. Brown also gives some suggestions with advantages and disadvantages for how we can fix the tax system to the process of accumulating wealth as easy for Black families as it has been for white families.
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The social justice protests have really opened my eyes to the whole concept of systemic racism. It took me a bit to understand how our laws, financial gains, and everything else it seems, is grounded in a system to further white privilege while making it harder for Black families to gain financial ground. Late last year I read The Address Book by Dierdre Mask and really enjoyed learning mnore about some of these concepts.

Dorothy A. Brown furthered a lot of these concepts for me, but specifically focused on tax codes in America. On the surface, these laws seem to benefit all of us, but as Brown meticulously demonstrates, that argument just doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

Some of the book was over my head, but that is no fault of Brown's; I just don't have a brain that works in math and numbers. However, I was impressed with the way Brown was able to break it down and it helped me digest it easier - though I have a long ways to go still.
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At its basis, this is a great thought provoking book about the unintended consequences of our tax law. A lot of the book was redundant and circular, but I think that only underlines how all the pieces work together. I did feel some of the examples presented were a bit suspect. For example: white homeownership increased from 45.7% to 64% between 1940 and 1960. That is an increase of 1.4times. During the same time Black homeownership increased from 22.8% to 38.4%. That is an increase of 1.68times. (And, the difference between Black and White ownership decreased from 50% to 40%.) But, instead of commenting that the ratio for Blacks was increasing at a faster rate (and might potentially catch up for White ownership), Ms. Brown focuses on comparing the absolute percentages. I am not saying that there isn't an issue here, but I felt the emphasis was a bit misleading. Likewise, in a few instances, a plan for change is proposed but then discarded because it would also benefit White families. I felt this was a bit too similar to the how many White conservatives were willing to go without health insurance out of fear that a minority or immigrant might also get healthcare through the same opportunity as discussed in Dying of Whiteness. But none of this should detract from the basic point of the book: tax law as it stands today is discriminatory. It needs to be changed to be equitable to all Americans, not just Black American as Ms. Brown suggests.
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This book blew my mind. I thought I knew some stuff about tax law and its history, but I knew so little. This book made me SO mad, so I appreciated the actionable bits Brown provides. Something needs to change and that is highlighted so well in The Whiteness of Wealth.
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I read to halfway and then finally gave up.  I had been contacted by an editor through NetGalley suggesting that since I had thoroughly enjoyed Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, I might enjoy this one, but I didn’t.  It read like a textbook and so much of it went right over my head.  It was long and repetitive and I got lost between the chapters which all seemed to say the same thing - there is disparity between the races and it favors Whites.  But I already knew that.  

My one take-away will be the quandary of housing.  Do you live in a predominantly Black neighborhood and enjoy the culture that goes with it and accept the poor quality of education in the schools, or do you move into a nice neighborhood where no one looks like you but your kids go to good schools?  I wish she had written more vignettes like that and cut back on the numbers.
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A powerful insight of racism in American taxation system that is not colorblind as perceived. The book opens with Dorothy Brown, a professor focused on tax law and how she pursued tax law to escape from racism. As the author studied and taught students about this subject matter, questions began to circulate on why her dad, a plumber and her mother, a nurse paid an unusually high percentage of their income in taxes. Through well-extensive research, Dorothy Brown exposes how U.S. tax policies fuels the Black-white wealth gap.

The author delivers illuminating factual information on the nature of U.S. economic oppression through detailed data analysis, brief history on tax policy and personal anecdotes. Tax system fairly is like a foreign language to me where I only hold a bare minimum basic knowledge. Therefore, I praise Dorothy Brown for her knowledge and impeccable writing in conveying and breaking down U.S. economic policies and data in a simpler and easier to understand format, pointing out the root of the issue and leading up to possible solutions in reforms to tackle racial inequality. The only comment about this book is that some of the points she made were repetitive. For the majority of readers it could be considered in a negative light, however for readers like myself I didn't mind at all because the repeated information helped me to digest and understand the important points Dorothy was sharing. The author extensively digs deep into tax policies that relate to most American life such as housing, marriage, education, work and more that was both eye-opening and enlightening. A captivating outlook on the power in politics and the lack of representation that creates the ever-increasing wealth gap and unequal opportunity in our so-called American dream. An educational and awe-inspiring reading experience that is an essential read for all. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Americans of all colors are waking up to the incredible amount of discrimination built right into its system. Blacks in the USA still must fight to even remain in the middle class because the taxation system is structured to boot them out. That is the premise of The Whiteness of Wealth, a clear, cogent, thorough and revealing work by a black tax lawyer, Dorothy Brown. 

Americans generally know that black households have a fraction of the accumulated wealth of whites. But Brown goes behind the headline numbers to show not only how this came to be, but why it continues, why it must continue, and how much of a threat it remains to every new generation of blacks in America. 

The book opens with a great line: ”I became a tax lawyer to get away from race.” Because you’d think taxes would be a safe haven where everyone gets the same treatment. But race issues are everywhere in taxation, and eventually, Brown took it upon herself to prove it by the numbers. It was a daunting task. For one thing, the Internal Revenue Service does not collect data by race. Every other conceivable datapoint – but not race. This has the salutary effect of preventing claims the system is unfair. Brown had to research a widely dispersed dataset, sometimes inferring race by zip code, and employing studies from which a single stat might help prove her generalized case. It is a very detailed, impressive piece of detective work and scholarship.

In case after case, she proves that the system is set up to benefit whites, at the expense of blacks. Blacks pay the same taxes, but don’t get the same benefits, for example. Famous cases are the GI Bill and land grants, both routinely denied awards to blacks. They are also routinely refused loans, grants, subsidies and lower interest rate mortgages, among others. Taxes paid by blacks go to subsidize whites in programs blacks cannot access. Brown says black families making over $300,000 a year are more likely to get a subprime mortgage than a white family making $30,000. White households headed by a high school dropout will show wealth of $34,700, while black households headed by a college graduate only show wealth of $23,400.

Among the many reasons Brown found for this was that black families must operate differently, and the tax laws do not take this into account, because they were written for whites. One big example is dependency. In white families, parents and grandparents aid children with tuition, house downpayments and gifts. In black families, the children support the parents and grandparents (and others). Support goes upwards through the generations, not downward towards the children. The result is little or no wealth accumulation. And that means no wealth-boosting transfers to the next generations.

In the chapter on housing, there is the usual litany of prejudice from redlining and subprime mortgages. But there is also the business of sales. Homes in predominantly black neighborhoods do not soar in value as they do in white areas. Worse, they are likely to lose value instead. But while profits from home sales are generally safe from taxation, losses are not even deductible against capital gains. So the net worth of black families can shrink every time they move.

Brown has studied it up and down, and has come to this point: “I propose to revise all homeownership subsidies to target them directly to those living in neighborhoods that are undervalued because of the race of their occupants. Those neighborhoods deserve government tax subsidies, because the government’s original discrimination against black Americans gave rise to the current discrimination perpetuated by private white homebuyers. Since 10 percent seems to be the magic number of black homeowners that makes a neighborhood lose value, homeowners living in neighborhoods with more than 10 percent black homeowners would be eligible for all current tax subsidies. Won’t that lead to gentrification? Well, a tax break could help offset rising property taxes, and keep black homeowners in place; and as we’ve seen, when black homeowners remain, neighborhoods are much less attractive to many white homeowners.”

A similar situation plays out in income taxes. Married couples have various marriage penalties to contend with in the antiquated US tax regime, but the one that hurts blacks most is the differential. For a couple where one works and the other doesn’t, taxes are reduced substantially. When both work and make about the same money, the tax bill is maximized. This is the trap blacks find themselves in, as a higher proportion of them must have both spouses working to make ends meet. For whites, it means one spouse provides free labor in childcare, upkeep, cooking and so on, completely untaxed. That’s the white way and it enriches them further, while blacks pay out more of their income.

Brown provides a remarkable chart showing the number of black families who benefit from marriage bonuses (MB), compared to those who suffer from marriage penalties (MP). It is not particularly pretty, but most readers will be seeing such a thing for the first time.

Blacks pay first class taxes for second class citizenship, she says. And it is so obvious and so serious, it is preventing essentially all progress for blacks to build wealth to pass on, such as a valuable home, investments, retirement plans and so on. Brown says “A 2015 Brookings Institution report titled ’Five Bleak Facts on Black Opportunity’ found that not only did most black American families fail to rise out of the middle class, their children were actually more likely to fall out of the middle class than they were to remain there. “  So this is known, but lawmakers are clearly not even attempting to deal with it.

Where then does all this come from? At bottom, it is selfish negligence. Lawmakers write statutes for whites and their situations and lifestyles, because that’s who they tend to be, and who (they think) they represent. Courts rule for whites who take issue with tax laws. But the results apply to all, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians, whether their situations are appropriate for those tax laws or not. 

Then, over the years, various lawmakers force changes (but not overhauls). They are influenced by lobbyists and high-powered supporters to change just one thing in a tax law – for their own benefit. These (white) influencers have no concern about unintended consequences. It has made the tax code so complex, convoluted and dense, there is no one in the world who can understand it all. But the ones who get the least benefit are blacks. As Brown summarizes it: “The American dream was never designed with us in mind.”

Brown is forceful, eloquent and quotable. She proves not only her tax chops, but her legal chops as well. She cites all manner of court decisions in showing how these tax laws came to be, and why it is nearly impossible to overturn them. The deck is stacked against blacks, so despite all the progress in breaking down racism and discrimination through, say, the Civil Rights Act, the very structure of the tax system fairly mandates their continued oppression.

The book is not all just complaining. Brown has thought through just how the statutes are prejudiced, and makes several recommendations for making them fairer. Her biggest effort though, is a recommendation for reparations. She details how it should work, how much it would cost, and the expected effects on society as a whole. Readers don’t have to agree, but this book is a comprehensive treatise, from problem to solution.

My only complaint is the repetition. Brown has strong points, but she keeps repeating them when they’ve already been thoroughly made. She also likes to repeat the same stories, mostly regarding her parents, who are poster children for the unfairness of the tax system (as well as racism in society). But her constant retelling of their stories is unnecessary. So the book suffers from the lack of a hardheaded editor’s pencil. This must not deter anyone from reading The Whiteness of Wealth. It is a powerfully written insight into a structural defect that keeps the country unequal.

David Wineberg
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"The Whiteness of Wealth" by Dorothy Brown centers around the way that tax law and the overall nature of the US economy oppress some and elevate others financially. This book is very eye-opening about the history of tax law, who has shaped it, and how it has affected both intergenerational wealth and the financial stability of those who are alive today. As the title makes clear, straight, white, married couples have been the historic winners in the tax game, and those who have been marginalized continue to fall behind. This book is similar to Richard Rothstein's "The Color of Law" and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's "Race for Profit." If these books interest you, then "The Whiteness of Wealth" is not one to be missed.
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