The racist history of the word ‘taxpayer’—and why you should stop saying it

The word “taxpayer” is a mainstay in political debate across the ideological spectrum. But use of the word—at least as a political identity—began with a very particular purpose: to derail efforts by recently freed African Americans who were elected to southern state legislatures just after the Civil War.

Nowadays, everybody says it. Small-town newspapers: “Taxpayer costs fall despite budget increase for East Helena Public Schools.” Left-leaning blogs: “Charter schools … funnel taxpayer money into the pockets of unscrupulous—often criminal—school operators.” And—as you might expect—Fox News: “Newsom signs bill granting taxpayer funded health care to elderly illegal immigrants.

That last one is significant. You see, some people don’t pay taxes. Some people are lazy “takers” who take from the “makers” and are “dependent on the government.” At least that’s what conservatives say.

They’re not talking about billionaires like Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person whose corporation Amazon uses loopholes to pay little to no taxes.

They’re talking about the homeless Black teenager. The immigrant farmworker. The single mother on food stamps and Medicaid. The depressed twentysomething living with their parents trying to figure out what to do next.

What they’re really saying is that the richer you are, the more voice you should have in how the government spends money. If you’re poor—especially if you’re Black or Brown—well then shut up and work harder.

As Raúl Carrillo and Jesse Myerson write, “Although most of us pay taxes of some kind, every time we say ‘taxpayer money’ we prolong the illusion that society depends on certain kinds of people so we can have nice things.”

And that’s exactly how “taxpayer” first entered the American political lexicon.

As the Brookings Institution’s Vanessa Williamson has documented, wealthy southern whites ​“focused their critique of Reconstruction on rising government debt and excessive spending, painting government by Black people and poor whites as intrinsically corrupt.” They called themselves “taxpayers,” allowing them to convince small white farmers to join their side while avoiding explicit opposition to Black male suffrage. Ultimately, they were successful. 

Law professor Camille Walsh wrote a whole book about this history called Racial Taxation. In it, she quotes a local paper in Memphis, Tennessee, that justified lynching in 1892: “The Scimitar defended the violence in the city’s history by blaming it on the Black population and calling it ‘a remarkable and discouraging fact that the majority of such scoundrels are Negroes who have received educational advantages at the hands of the white taxpayers.’”

Margaret Thatcher, the arch-conservative British prime minister who once said that there’s no such thing as society, also said, “There is no such thing as public money, only taxpayer money.”

She was absolutely wrong. There’s no getting around the fact that there are some things that we just have to do together. Public things. Keeping our air and water clean. Educating kids. Building roads, mass transit, and other ways of getting around. This one’s obvious right now: fighting a public health crisis like Covid-19.

In other words, all of us are connected as neighbors, coworkers, family, community members, and all sorts of other ways—despite the conservative individualist, pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps mythology. The pandemic has made that plain as day.

I’ll let Carrillo and Myerson have the last word: “We are all the public, and we each deserve a clear, equal say in how our economy and society work, no matter how much we each pay in taxes.”

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Photo by cometstarmoon.