Twice as Many African Americans are Killed by COVID as Whites. Can a Wealth Tax Help?

It's now abundantly clear that the coronavirus impacts African Americans at a disturbingly disproportionate rate. This is both an effect of America's widening racial wealth gap and a cause likely to further expand that very divide. As Steven Brown, a research associate at the Urban Institute domestic policy research organization told CNN, "When white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia." In Chicago, for instance, African Americans make up over 50 percent of those who have tested positive for coronavirus but represent only a third of the population. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, the situation is worse: representing only 26 percent of the population, African Americans make up 70 percent of coronavirus deaths. This situation is similar for some other minority populations in America. While it's essential to treat the immediate symptoms of these impacts, we must also address the deeper cause of this increased vulnerability among people of color. As the chief diversity officer at John Hopkins Medicine, Sherita Golden M.D., says, in order to truly fight "racial disparity in the COVID-19 pandemic," we must "mitigate economic inequality." We can no longer seek only to alleviate these symptoms without searching for an economic cure.

At first glance, tax legislation might seem like neither cause nor cure of the current crisis. But inadequate taxation drives the wealth inequality that has made many African-Americans so vulnerable. In fact, modern American taxation is largely the product of the same Supreme Court that attempted to make segregation in America constitutional. It's also founded on a controversial reading of a clause in the constitution dedicated to preserving slavery. In short, the history of an American wealth tax has a long political history shaped by the struggle for racial equality.

Slavery has haunted the question of taxation since the creation of the Constitution. In Article 1, Section 2, the same clause both grants Congress the power of taxation and defines slaves as 3/5th of a person. Southern delegates wanted slaves to count as people in order to boost their states' political representation in Congress, but they wanted to classify the same slaves as property to avoid taxes based on state population size. To compromise, delegates from the North and South included vague language that can be read as either allowing or prohibiting a direct wealth tax.

While some argue that the Founding Fathers intended to protect individuals from personal taxation, Alexander Hamilton himself spoke in defense of a wealth tax. In the 1796 case Hylton v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that wealthy individuals were subject to taxes on their property. Though it was never widely implemented and did not benefit people of color, a wealth tax remained constitutionally protected for over a century under the Hylton v. United States ruling.

It would take one of the most controversial Supreme Courts in American history— the same court that defined the doctrine of "separate but equal" in the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson case—to overturn this precedent in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company. In 1895, after Congress passed a 2 percent tax on income over $4,000, the Supreme Court hobbled the government's ability to collect taxes, a function which Alexander Hamilton deemed the "indispensable ingredient in every constitution."

As the dissenting Justice Brown wrote, "The decision involves nothing less than the surrender of the taxing power to the moneyed class." This ruling was so radical that the government was forced 18 years later to pass the 16th amendment to explicitly re-secure the power of Congress to directly tax income without reference to population. "This decision," in the words of Justice John Harlan, was "the most disastrous blow ever struck at the constitutional power of Congress."

The segregationist Chief Justice, Melville Fuller, justified the effective ban on income tax by arguing that: "The present assault upon capital is but the beginning... our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich." His court also struck down minimum wage requirements, maximum hour protections, and limitations on the use of child labor. The dissenting justice who opposed the majority on taxation and segregation saw that these issues were intimately linked. As Judge Harlan wrote in dissent, "This recent decision will become as hateful with the American people as the Dred Scott case was when it was decided... The recent decision will have the effect, if the country recognizes it permanently as good law, to make the freemen of America the slaves of accumulated wealth." As Harlan predicted, this ruling would drastically shape 20th century society and exacerbate racial inequality in America.

In 1913, the 16th amendment nullified this court ruling in order to secure the right to raise taxes for the war. However the 16th amendment only secures the right to collect taxes on income. Some conservatives still claim the Constitution authorizes only a tax on income, not wealth. Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton did not regard a wealth tax as unconstitutional, and neither did the Supreme Court for almost the entirety of the 19th century. There is no reason to abandon this reading of the Constitution. Though far less famous than Plessy, the Pollock decision also lacks moral legitimacy and should not constrain our thinking about a wealth tax.

The pandemic has made the racial injustice at the heart of income inequality clearer than ever. It's now essential to embrace a progressive wealth tax to fund a robust social safety net that protects all Americans equally. We have righted the wrong of the supreme court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. We must now right the 1895 Pollock decision in order to address the racial economic inequality at the heart of the pandemic.

Nick Romeo also writes for The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Follow him @Nickromeoauthor. Ian Tewksbury, a Classics PhD student at Stanford University, researches ancient philosophy and also writes for the Daily Beast. Follow him @TewksburyIan.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.​​​​​