Proposing a Concept of the Black Tax to Understand the Experiences of Blacks in America - Higher Education

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Proposing a Concept of the Black Tax to Understand the Experiences of Blacks in America

by Robert T. Palmer and Larry J. Walker

The protests occurring in many cities in America to call attention to the systemic racism in society has provoked us to critically reflect on our experiences as Black men in this country. This cathartic process has led us to believe that as African- Americans we are involuntarily mandated to pay a “Black tax.” This term is not new. In fact, it has been primarily associated with a family member who has advanced to a high socioeconomic status and who provides monetary support to other family members. Some have used this term to underscore the ways in which discrimination has impacted the financial standing of African-Americans. Our conceptualization of the Black tax differs from the ways it has been used previously.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer

Our concept of a Black tax is not connected to finances but is grounded in a psychological phenomenon. Specifically, our definition of a Black tax is the psychological weight or stressor that Black people experience from consciously or unconsciously thinking about how White Americans perceive the social construct of Blackness. Blackness in America is often portrayed through a deficit lens and is associated with racial stereotypes. The cognizance of how Blackness is defined by the dominant culture, coupled with the unjust treatment Black people have endured, and continue to be subjected to, due to racism, results in a psychological burden known as the Black Tax. This tax may elicit a behavioral response. Obviously, this phenomenon has not been empirically supported nor studied and it may align with other concepts or theories about how African-Americans experience racism in America. Therefore, further research and conceptualization will be needed. Nevertheless, in the subsequent paragraphs, we draw from our lived experiences to contextualize how our lives have been shaped by the Black tax. The first author will discuss his experience first followed by the second author.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer

During my undergraduate years and the two years I worked on my graduate degree at predominantly White institutions (PWIs), I always felt compelled to overperform when I was assigned to group activity where I was the only African American. There was one time, in particular, in graduate school, where the group I was assigned to was tasked with writing a 15-page paper. I actually wrote the entire paper myself and put the names of the group members on it. I did this because I did not want my group members, who were all white, to think that I was not going to pull my weight. When I emailed them the completed version of the paper, they were beyond elated and I was happy to have their validation.  My experience is not an isolated incident. Findings from research on Black students at PWIs have reinforced the fact that African Americans feel pressured to work twice as hard and to perform better than their White counterparts when they are in predominantly White spaces. The current attempt to have The University of Virginia and University of Missouri reconsider their denial of tenure for Drs. Paul Harris, Tolu Odumosu, and Ashley Woodson, respectively, is emblematic of this.

Another example I will use to illustrate this notion of a Black tax comes in the form of interacting with financial institutions. More specifically, I have developed a sense of being uncomfortable going into banks to handle my financial business. As a Black man, I always feel scrutinized from the minute that I walk into a bank. Added to this, there have been times that I have gone into the bank to deposit a check and the authenticity of my check has been questioned. As a result of these experiences, I tried to avoid banking in person as much as possible. This notion of a Black tax has virtually impacted every aspect of my life, from interacting with the police and even walking my dog in my neighborhood.

Dr. Larry Walker

Dr. Larry J. Walker

The concept of the Black tax is an unfair burden that has existed for generations. While the country celebrates wealth, there is minimal focus on the impact of being Black in America has on our daily experiences. My co-author highlighted several examples that exemplify the price he pays. While I could fill the pages of a novel documenting all the challenges I have encountered as a Black male in America, a few stand out. For example, a few years ago I interviewed at a postsecondary institution. The interviewer complimented my CV, experience, etc. These are statements you expect to hear after years of hard work. Suddenly, he mentioned how “articulate” I was during the interview. For members of the Black community certain phrases elicit feelings of anger and confusion. Why? Because you begin to question everything you accomplished and understand it is not really a compliment. In addition, after the interview was over, I found myself lingering on the comment and angry because I did not respond. Today, I still think about the statement and how many Black people were not hired because of the individuals’ perceptions of Black people.

A second story relates to a graduate class I taught. A White male student spent the entire semester challenging every small detail I discussed in class. The questions went beyond typical inquiries about assignments and content. These are experiences Black people have all the time, the feeling that someone is asking questions for other reasons. My suspicions were confirmed when on the last day of class, the student used my first name instead of the usual “Dr. Walker” for a question. It is important to note that the class was asked to call me “Dr. Walker” from the first day of class. This was an attempt to embarrass me just before the class ended. While I immediately corrected the student, the faces of the predominately White class were telling. No one asked why he decided to use my first name, they just stared at me, confused. I highlighted this story because when Black people are in positions of authority and insulted, they are often perceived as overstepping their place. While both stories seem minor, I can attest to the impact they had on my well-being. Over time these interactions accumulate and leave you exhausted and angry. You see, the Black tax is not paid annually but due every day of your life. Society does not offer an “out clause.” This is why the voices of the Black community must be amplified.

Much like White privilege defines the experiences of White Americans, the Black tax is inextricably linked to the experiences of African Americans. The fact that Black parents have to have a talk with their children about how to interact with the police is indicative of the Black tax.   While this notion of the Black tax may need further conceptualization and support from empirical research, from our vantage point, is it a legitimate phenomenon that has important consequences for the daily experiences of African Americans.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer is chair and associate professor of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the School of Education at Howard University.

Dr. Larry J. Walker is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at the University of Central Florida. 

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