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Tax History Matters: A Q&A with the Author of ‘The Black Tax’

The history of the property tax system and its structural defects that have led to widespread discrimination against Black Americans.

In your book, you talk about property tax systems as being a major culprit behind the economic exclusion of Black Americans over the past 150 years. Can you give us an example of what that looks like in practice?

Because property taxes are levied at the state and local level, they have played a key role in fueling segregation and exclusion in housing markets and public schools since the 20th century.

After World War II American middle-class white families flocked to the suburbs and formed new municipalities and school districts. This allowed them to keep their local property tax dollars and not share them with the areas they left behind.

The fragmentation of metropolitan America into separate and unequal tax bases created winners and losers: suburban towns and school districts with sizable tax bases relative to population size, which allowed them to tax property at a lower rate to fund quality services and schools; and central cities with shrinking tax bases and mounting needs, forcing them to tax property at higher rates while generating less revenue.

Moreover, majority-Black cities and school districts were forced to tax residential property heavily to generate barely enough revenue to maintain basic services. By the late 1960s, for example, cities like Gary, Indiana, and Newark, New Jersey, had some of the highest property tax rates at the same time their school systems and public services suffered from chronic underfunding.

This dynamic gave white middle- and upper-class beneficiaries strong incentives to pursue exclusionary policies that limited the presence of the poor and people of color, who were seen as “consuming” more local tax dollars while driving down property values and, with it, shrinking local tax bases.

You write about both political and legal campaigns to change property tax policy. Has one strategy tended to yield more results than the other? Do you view these two approaches as an either/or proposition, or do you see them as complementing each other?

At a national level, there have been sporadic attempts to address problems with local property tax administration that result in the gross under-taxation of certain properties and over-taxation of others. Most notably in the early 1970s, Congress held hearings in response to a spate of scandals involving local assessors’ offices and President Richard Nixon made property tax reform a part of his 1972 re-election campaign. But that moment passed without any federal legislation.