The Damage the ‘Black Tax’ Inflicted on Generations of African Americans

Illustration: Sadia Tariq. April 2022

By Adeel Hassan at The New York Times: Property is generally worth less if it’s owned by a Black American. That sobering fact, cemented by 150 years of assessment data, underpins inequality today.

Black Americans’ properties have been undervalued by home appraisers and overvalued by tax assessors. That double punch has left Black homeowners more prone to falling behind on their taxes and, ultimately, to dispossession. One such case involved a Black landowner in North Carolina who lost his land in 1920. That loss affected the family line across generations, and his great-great grandson, George Floyd, was murdered by a police officer after a phone call to the authorities in Minneapolis about a counterfeit $20 bill one century later.

A book published this week, “The Black Tax,” explains how the case of Floyd’s great-great grandfather was not unusual under a system that crystallized soon after Black Americans began acquiring property. Black Americans remain the only racial group with a homeownership rate below 50 percent.

I asked the author, Andrew Kahrl, a history professor at the University of Virginia, about his research. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Black Americans owned more than 16 million acres by 1910. On the surface, that looks like a success. What lies beneath that?

It was a remarkable achievement in the face of enormous odds. By the turn of the 20th century, though, a clear pattern of over-taxation of Black-owned property was apparent across the South. More deviously, local tax authorities were quick to auction off Black-owned land for unpaid taxes, especially when the land in question had become valuable.

While owning land afforded Black people living in the Jim Crow South a degree of independence that Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers lacked, the responsibilities that came with owning land — such as paying taxes — also carried liabilities. The abuse of local taxing powers worked to ensure that whatever land Black people managed to acquire would remain vulnerable to dispossession.

Explain how the assessment process was abused.

Local tax assessors enjoyed — and often still enjoy — a remarkable amount of discretion over the valuation of local property for taxes. They were, in a sense, accountable to the voters who put them in office, which, because of disfranchisement, meant that they were unaccountable to Black property owners and could overtax them with virtual impunity.

By grossly under-assessing the value of large plantations and estates as well as smaller white landholdings, local tax authorities purposely allowed the wealthiest landowners to pay minimal taxes and starved local governments of revenue, which also shifted local tax burdens decisively onto disenfranchised Black citizens.

It made it easier to, essentially, steal the land?

Tax sales were a powerful and underrecognized instrument of land dispossession, and one that contributed significantly to the decline of Black land ownership, from 16 million acres in 1910 to less than 1.6 million acres by 2000.

While the particular causes of Black land loss varied, it tended to fit a pattern. It was when Black people owned land that others wanted, or when the presence of an individual or group of Black landowners was seen as a threat to the prevailing social and economic order that Black-owned land was most vulnerable.

The people who bid on tax delinquent properties at county tax auctions were not the hooded nightriders or white mobs that we often associate with Black land dispossession in this era. They were often lawyers and land speculators who were seeking to take advantage of others’ misfortunes, financial hardships and vulnerabilities for gain.

How did Black Americans defend themselves?

More here.