Posted on April 29, 2024

How the US Tax System Stole $600 Billion From Black Americans

Kelsey Butler, Bloomberg, April 24, 2024

At the turn of the 20th century, Anthony Fleming and J.R. Rooks, two Black men who had been driven off their farmland by White supremacist mobs, founded a town with the aim of giving Black Americans access to land ownership.

By 1911, Edmonson, Arkansas, covered 30 square miles and had stores and a bank, hotel and post office. One historian called it a “destination for Black migrants at a time when Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement had stymied opportunities for Blacks elsewhere.”

Just two decades later, it was over. This time, a mob wasn’t to blame. It was taxes.

Worried that the upwardly mobile Black residents of Edmonson would make Black laborers they relied upon feel dissatisfied, nearby White plantation owners plotted to seize the town. The county quietly created a special-improvement district that encompassed Edmonson, allowing it to assign taxes on all its lots. Residents’ failure to pay these bills—ones they were purposefully never informed of—cleared the way for the state to seize control of the land, which it then deeded to one of the plantation owners who had concocted the scheme. Suddenly, Black residents were now living on land controlled by someone who demolished their houses and closed their businesses.

The Edmonson tale is one of many in The Black Tax: 150 Years of Theft, Exploitation, and Dispossession in America (University of Chicago Press, $35, publishing on April 24) which painstakingly outlines how bureaucracies in the US cemented the country’s racial wealth gap through a framework of aggressively unfair municipal and state taxes.

“This history sheds new light on the forces generating economic inequality in America and the racial character of those inequalities,” writes author Andrew W. Kahrl, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia.


The Black Tax begins with the era of Jim Crow laws. In the late 19th and early 20th century, these were used to doubly harm Black landowners: first, by artificially inflating property value estimates used to calculate their taxes and therefore overcharge them; and second, by wielding landowners’ inability to make payments as a weapon to seize their properties.


In addition to individual anecdotes, The Black Tax also lays out the long-term impact of policies directed at Black populations. An unpaid tax bill—either because of financial hardship or trickery, as in Edmonson—led to the seizure of many of the 11 million acres Black people lost in the 20th century. The compounded value of that land amounts to $326 billion in today’s dollars, according to a 2022 American Economic Association paper.

Kahrl also offers numerous examples to debunk a racist trope perpetuated by White Southern elites and segregationists that still echoes today, namely that Black people don’t pay their fair share in taxes. Kahrl shows that in many instances, they have grossly overpaid for decades.


{snip} From 1870 to 2020, Black Americans were overtaxed by more than $275 billion in 2023 dollars, according to a conservative estimate based on findings by economists Carlos Avenancio-León and Troup Howard.

Despite paying more than their share, residents in many Black neighborhoods never reaped benefits from those higher taxes: Schools were underfunded, roads weren’t paved and garbage went uncollected. Some of that disparate treatment pushed residents into advocacy and activism.


Kahrl proposes creation of a federal fiscal equity program whereby money would be doled out to local governments according to need, as is done in Canada. A universal home tax exemption for a primary residence could provide welcome relief for many Americans, particularly lower-income homeowners or those living in areas that were historically neglected. Taxing the wealthiest in the US would cover any shortfalls many times over, he writes. {snip}