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How the U.S. tax code disadvantages Black Americans

Taxes and America's racial wealth gap
How tax laws contribute to America's racial wealth gap 05:57

America has a major racial wealth gap that is driven in part by the way the federal tax code is written, according to a law professor who has spent her career documenting racism in the tax system. 

Indeed, median wealth for White families is almost eight times that of Black families and five times that of Hispanic families, who have been held back by loopholes in the U.S. tax system, according to Dorothy A. Brown, a professor of law at Emory University and the author of "The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans — and How We Can Fix It." 

"What the tax law does every April 15th is see to it that Black Americans pay higher taxes than their White peers because Black and White Americans engage in the same activity, but tax law impacts differently because we bring our racial identities onto our tax forms," Brown told CBS News' Tanya Rivero and Tony Dokoupil.

The marriage tax

Differences in how married couples are taxed, versus singles, is one way in which Black families end up disadvantaged, according to Brown.

"When White and Black Americans get married, how we tax marriage varies depending on how many spouses work," she said.

Housing discrimination causes generational wealth gap between White and Black Americans 11:28

When a couple marries, their taxes can either increase or decrease. If only one spouse works, the couple gets a tax cut. But if both spouses work in the paid labor market, they'll likely see their tax rate go up.

How is race involved? Census bureau data show that White, married couples are more likely to have a stay-at-home spouse and get a tax cut, whereas in Black married couples, both partners are more likely to be wage earners, and therefore pay higher taxes.  

Brown said she made this discovery while helping her parents, who earn less than she does, file their taxes. 

"I'm doing my parents' taxes and I'm making more money than they are and I'm supposed to be paying a lot more in taxes than they are and I'm not. And I can't figure it out," she said. "It wasn't until I became a law professor and had the luxury of time that I stumbled into the answer. My parents were paying so much in taxes because they were married to each other."

Single file only, please

She blames the federal government, which she says has not taken steps to stop penalizing dual-earner households and help address issues around tax policy and race. As a result, the tax code remains discriminatory, Brown said. 

But there is a fix, according to Brown. The U.S. can nix marriage considerations and tax people as individuals.

"I propose, like Canada and others, that we have single filing — no joint returns, so that when you get married your tax bill doesn't change," Brown said. 

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