“Taxpayer Dollars”: The Origins of Austerity’s Racist CatchphraseRoundup
tags: racism, taxes, Political rhetoric
Camille Walsh is assistant professor of American and Ethnic Studies and Law, Economics, and Public Policy at the University of Washington-Bothell, and the author of Racial Taxation:
Schools, Segregation, and Taxpayer Citizenship, 1869–1973:
In late February, a caucus of Republican legislators wrote a three-page memo to rally opposition to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Highlighting “liberal goodies” in the bill, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) explained that his group had put together a fact sheet “to educate Americans [on] exactly how their taxpayer dollars are being spent by Democrats.” There it was again, invoked as usual to block government aid: the myth of the “taxpayer” and their “dollars.”
The phrase “taxpayer dollars” has a populist, even democratic ring to it. Gone are the days when we referred to the treasury as “the king’s purse” or treated taxation as a tithe or gift to the crown. “Taxpayer dollars” suggests that the money spent by the federal government is owned by “the people.” But the concept is more slippery than it might seem. The question of who counts as a taxpayer is not some neutral, empirical consideration.
Did the unmarried or widowed women who paid state property taxes qualify politically as “taxpayers” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though they couldn’t yet vote? Does a 12-year-old who buys a soda at the corner market with his allowance qualify? What about the tenant farmer? What about the undocumented worker paying into Social Security that they will never receive? Is a renter less of a taxpayer than a homeowner simply because they are paying embedded taxes?
Not everyone who pays taxes gets to be considered a taxpayer. That’s because it’s frequently a bit of code, a way of talking about white people—and especially white male heads of households, homeowners, and business owners—and the imagined Black underclass that’s coming for their money.
The taxpayer myth has deep roots, and throughout history it has been intertwined with the idea that all forms of resources from the government belong to white people, to do with as they please. In the late 19th century, a series of lawsuits brought by Black students and educators challenged the segregation of schools. These argued that Black people, as “taxpayers,” were having their rights violated—they were paying for schools but not receiving a fair education. There were clear dignitarian and legal reasons for Black litigants to assert their identity as taxpayers. But their approach offered illusory victories in court, and the narrative soon would be weaponized by reactionaries.
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