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Aug 22, 2020

Whenever Steve's guest is a lawyer, we know we're going to learn something new. Rohan Grey told us it's like the saying: “when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When you're a lawyer, you look at any issue and see a network of laws. This is why we're so grateful for the lawyers on Macro & Cheese - they teach us about that underlying legal framework.

Camille Walsh isn't just a lawyer, she's a historian. We've been hearing about her book, Racial Taxation: Schools, Segregation, and Taxpayer Citizenship, 1869-1973, for a long time. Interestingly, she never intended to write about taxation, but her research led her there, and decided it for her. The notion of identifying as “taxpayer” is entwined with presumptions of entitlement which, in the US, date back to the founding principles, determining who has the right to be a citizen, who's qualified to vote, claim property, or own other human beings. The bottom line: it was a privileged group of white males back then and little has changed. Ultimately a group’s identity as taxpayers decides whether they’ll get some tiny amount of financial support, be it by federal, state, or local governments.

After the Civil War, the taxpayers’ status was firmly established. All power was concentrated in their hands; they wrote all the laws and accrued all the benefits. It was during this period -- Reconstruction -- that there was a boom in the founding of schools. The fact that they were funded by local property taxes determined something as basic as whether a school was a one-room shack or a schoolhouse supplied with books. To this day, we have a stark disparity in resource distribution between schools in white and minority districts, with white men predominantly staffing the school boards and unevenly allocating funding based on this false sense of entitlement.

The burden of educational funding remains squarely on the shoulders of revenue-constrained states and communities, creating a sense of scarcity and subsequent resentment toward nonwhites as “others,” allowing racist and classist biases to guide the outcome. Underfunded schools lead to under-educated citizens -- poor whites as well as minorities -- relegating them to low-income employment in a vicious cycle that traces back to the rigged educational system.

Camille talks to Steve about the shocking number of rights that are assumed to be in the Constitution but aren’t actually spelled out until there’s a legal challenge, in which case the court’s ruling sets them in stone -- for better or worse. For example, the right to interstate travel didn’t exist until California attempted to limit settlers from other states.

People assumed that Brown v Board of Education settled the issue of an equal right to education. In the 1954 ruling, Earl Warren said “education is possibly the most important function of state and local governments." What many of us weren’t aware of, though, was the 1973 decision in San Antonio v Rodriguez. It’s a little known case -- one out of many that dealt with education and segregation. In a 5-4 decision, it shot down the right to equal funding of schools. Unequal funding means unequal education. The argument leaned heavily on anti-communism, warning that once we start funding schools equally, we’ll be on the slippery slope to becoming Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Justice Powell, that great hero of neoliberals everywhere, wrote the majority decision.

In this particular moment in time, as extraordinary and unprecedented things are intersecting and coalescing, we need to understand the consequences of our history. This episode gives us much to consider.

Camille Walsh is an Associate Professor of Law, Economics, and Public Policy at the University of Washington Bothell. She doesn’t spend much time on social media.

Racial Taxation: Schools, Segregation, and Taxpayer Citizenship, 1869-1973