David J. Herzig and Samuel D. Brunson, New York Times, August 29, 2017
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., shocked many Americans.
It set off a passionate national discussion on how to best deal with racism and racist groups. There is an unconventional starting point: revoking the tax exemption of white supremacist groups.
A recent Associated Press report said that over the past decade, four prominent white nationalist groups alone received over $7.8 million in donations.
Like museums, churches and schools, these groups do not have to pay taxes on a majority of their revenue. Donors to these groups can deduct their gifts, and real estate that the groups own is generally exempt from property taxes. In addition, in the eyes of the organization and the public, being tax-exempt confers a certain legitimacy.
The I.R.S., the agency in charge of enforcing these rules, must decide whether groups qualify for tax exemptions. It makes that decision impartially, meaning that organizations that, say, promote racist ideology are generally eligible for nonprofit status as long as they are organized for a qualifying purpose and otherwise meet the criteria for exemption. For many white supremacist groups, that claim is on educational grounds (established by I.R.S. criteria). After all, many on the far right, like Mr. Spencer and the operators of organizations like VDare, declare that they do not hate others but rather promote whiteness.
But some viewpoints are fundamentally untethered from American values and should no longer receive any state support or endorsement. We are not arguing that such despicable views be excluded from the public sphere; free speech is too important a value to dismiss just because some people’s speech is repugnant. But under current law, tax exemption represents something more than merely permitting free speech.
If the administration is going to “take the most vigorous actions” against white supremacists and neo-Nazis, the first step would be to review and revoke the tax exemption for any organizations that espouse these ideologies.
Certainly, any group that sponsors violence against racial or ethnic minorities should not qualify for a tax exemption. Moreover, any group that proclaims the superiority of whites, or supports the separation of the population by race, should be scrutinized. Where an organization’s mission statement suggests a focus on the superiority of whites, or the inferiority of other groups, the I.R.S. should look closely at what the group does. (Though surprising, it is not unheard-of for a group to explicitly state its white supremacist purposes. The New Century Foundation, for example, says in its mission statement, “We also believe the European-American majority has legitimate group interests now being ignored.”)
After accusations that the I.R.S. discriminated against Tea Party groups by delaying or denying their applications for nonprofit status, the agency has been treading more carefully than ever.
The case of white supremacist groups is different: Politicians and citizens on the left and the right have recognized the odiousness of white supremacist groups.
The Constitution protects these groups’ right to free speech, but it doesn’t promise anyone freedom from taxes.