- The Power to Destroy:Discriminatory Property Assessments and the Struggle for Tax Justice in Mississippi
The property tax has justly received many pejorative labels over the course of American history. It has been called “the worst tax.”1 Its administrators have been derided as the most corrupt, incompetent, and unfaithful of public servants.2 So routine were legal challenges to property tax assessments by corporations that in 1937 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that established the principle of pay-first-then-litigate so as to prevent the cities and counties dependent on this revenue source from going broke.3 But of all the negative labels observers have pinned to the property tax, one stands out as particularly inaccurate: its randomness. Instead, a given property’s assessment has more often reflected the status of its holder than its market value, which itself was a reflection of the status of its holder.4 [End Page 579]
The Jim Crow South has become synonymous with white supremacy in its most raw, naked form. But while brutal and exploitative labor systems, political demagoguery, antiblack violence, and the specter of racial terrorism formed Jim Crow’s foundation, a more subtle, sophisticated set of racist policies and administrative practices served as its last line of defense and, ultimately, proved to be most effective in fortifying white supremacy for generations. There was, as the historian N. D. B. Connolly describes, “an increasing professionalism to white racism” beginning in the 1940s and evolving, in both form and substance, alongside and in conjunction with the expanding powers and scope of the modern American state.5 No governmental body in the United States was more suited for this new era in white supremacist governance than local taxing authorities, where white political power and economic advantage had been woven into obscure, highly specialized, and dimly understood policies and practices. In the early- to mid-twentieth-century rural South, local tax assessors played an instrumental, if unappreciated, role in enforcing the color line and preserving forms of race-based exploitation that were central to the Jim Crow political economy as a whole. And as the black freedom movement took flight, it was in the property tax where Jim Crow took refuge and where white supremacists worked to reconstitute some of its administrative apparatus.
An assessment, as distinct from an appraisal, is the amount of a property’s total value that is subject to taxation. The percentage of a property’s appraised value used to determine an assessment varies by state and locality, as does the formula used to determine that value. In contrast to other forms of taxation in the United States, the property tax rate within a given city or county is determined by the amount of tax revenue the government needs to raise. The total assessed value of all taxable property within a given city or county thus determines the tax (or, millage) rate for all property taxpayers.6 This means that a [End Page 580] tax reduction for one property (or a group of properties) is equivalent to a tax hike on all other properties, and vice versa. An assessment that might appear fair and accurate can in fact be utterly unfair and force its owner to shoulder an unjust tax burden if other properties within the city or county are assessed at a lower percentage of their appraised value. Not only does the assessor’s office make those determinations, but it also holds the data and the analytical tools taxpayers need in order to determine if they are being taxed fairly. Assessors’ offices have abused their powers with impunity. Beholden only to the voting public and given virtually free rein over their duties, assessors have routinely undervalued property and adjusted assessment rates downward for key constituents and, conversely, overvalued property and adjusted rates upward for those who lack political influence or bargaining power.7
The complicated and, for the average taxpayer, bewildering formula used to determine a property owner’s tax liability, the relative nature of over- and undertaxation, and the assessor’s ability to control access to the information essential to uncovering, much less contesting, unfair or discriminatory practices help explain...