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Undoing the legacy of racism through better tax policy

Commentary
November 28, 2018By Juan Carlos Ordóñez

In 1862, not long after joining the Union, Oregon enacted a tax on people of color. If you were black, mixed-race, Hawaiian, or Chinese, you had to pay a tax not levied on white Oregonians. If you couldn’t afford it, you paid it off by performing road work.

While such explicitly racist fiscal policies now reside in the pages of history, the legacy of tax and budget policies concocted in a deeply racist past continues to be felt in the present. That is the message of a groundbreaking report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — a must-read for all Oregonians interested in a more just and equitable society.

Fiscal policies of the past, as well as ongoing patterns of discrimination, have helped give rise to a massive racial wealth gap. “Wealth accumulates over time and over generations,” the report explains, “so its distribution today reflects, among other things, the cumulative impact of many types of racial disadvantage and discrimination.” Today, the wealthiest 10 percent of white households own nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. Households of color own just 13 percent of the nation’s wealth, despite accounting for 35 percent of all households.

The report takes a walk through the history of race and tax policy in our country. Some of the key policies discussed in the report arose in the South during the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation was the law of the land. Such policies included placing in state constitutions supermajority requirements for tax increases and highly restrictive property tax limitations — two policies that eventually made their way to Oregon. (Fortunately, this November Oregonians chose not to broaden the existing supermajority requirement when they overwhelmingly voted down Measure 104.)

Beyond the letter of the law, discrimination also arose in the application of tax policy. When it came to property taxes, for example, “politicians often over-assessed property owned by African Americans and under-assessed property owned by white residents.”

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The challenge for lawmakers today is to recognize “fiscal policies need not be explicitly race-based to worsen or extend longstanding racial inequities. Policies can have those effects if they ignore the history of governmental and private actions that enforced racial segregation and held back people of color, as well as the continuing impact of racial bias and discrimination.”

The report lays out a number of recommendations, many of them applicable here in Oregon:

These policy approaches would not only help undo the legacy of racism, they would also improve the lives of the vast majority of Oregonians, whether white, black or brown.