Slave Taxes, Race and Class

Wanted to share a fascinating article on the lasting imprint of slavery on Alabama’s revenue system and structural fiscal problems.

Key takeaways for me:

First, obviously slavery was a huge part of the Southern economy — indeed the US economy — and as such it played a huge role in state taxation. As the article notes, in the mid-1800s slave taxes accounted for more than half of state revenue in Georgia and nearly half in Alabama. You’d be hard pressed to find a closer tie between race and tax policy.

Second, it’s particularly interesting in that within a story that focuses largely on race (rightfully so), the intersection of class is also glaringly important. The slave-owning class, while powerful, was a relatively small group of people, meaning that the vast majority of the tax fell on only a small group of wealthy whites — making it largely progressive. This also made it popular, non-slaveholding Whites, landowning or otherwise, were more than happy to finance government in this manner and keep property taxes low. 

Third, it’s fascinating to see how quickly the class-based interests present pre-Civil War evaporate once emancipation happens and black men gain voting rights. After a very brief period of reconstruction, race, not class, becomes the predominant unifying force — and Alabama begins to roll back rights for Black people, engage in an effectively state sanctioned 90 year terrorist campaign against Black citizens, and protect white wealth through putting caps on property taxes. 

An article like this is so critical at this point in time, not only for providing a more honest understanding of how deeply ingrained slavery was into the very fabric of this nation, but also into the understanding of how race and class plays off one another to shape how we’re governed. It’s also critical to understand how we can be divided and perhaps give us insight into how we can break down barriers across racial lines to build alliances that can push for more fair and equitable policy and outcomes.

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