This post also appears — in much the same form — as a column in the local Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal.
It is that time of year again, the time when the cold winds of winter start to blow, the time when some of us celebrate the holidays, and the time when our local elected boards make decisions about budgets and property taxes for the coming year. Budgets and money mean controversy, because we are all understandably sensitive about our ability to sustain ourselves and our families. A decrease to our paycheck, an increase in rent, and an increase in taxes can all be seen as threats to our own basic needs. On the other hand, we agree to the government’s power of taxation because it can provide services that we either cannot provide on our own or can only provide at greater expense — public safety, transportation, education, and many others. So a tax increase can be seen both as a means of providing services to the public and as an attack on citizens’ means of supporting themselves. This is why these debates can become so heated.
Our human inclinations complicate the debate as well. One factor is that it can be difficult to differentiate what we want from what we need. I believe that some of us who fight against property taxes do so because we are worried about supporting our basic needs, or worried about the abilities of others in our communities to support themselves. There certainly are people on fixed incomes — elderly and low-income residents — as well as people whose housing cost increases are outpacing their income increases. I share the concern that if property taxes continue to rise, they could push out lower-income people, elderly residents, and others from our community.
But I am equally sure that some of us who fight against higher property taxes do so because these taxes impact our ability to live in as big a house as we want, or have the car we want, or take the vacations we want. And I worry about whether those in our community who are most vehement in this debate are those who don’t need lower taxes, but want them, and are fine with achieving those lower taxes on the backs of others. Too often in this discussion, I hear property tax opponents attacking others’ integrity, competence, and worth. I have heard a number of people claim that the elected officials who were considering raising taxes were unethical, were breaking promises, or that the reason people voted them into office was because they are people of color. I have heard property tax opponents make blanket statements that our public school teachers are incompetent, either by referring to their own experiences or cherry-picking school performance statistics, to argue that schools should not get any more money. And I have heard other opponents say that no amount of money will help “inner city” kids — code words for kids of color — learn more, so we shouldn’t raise taxes.
People say these things because property taxes are one of the things we talk about when we’re actually talking about race and power. Too often, we wield our words like a cudgel against those we disagree with or don’t understand. Unfortunately, this can mean financially fortunate white people criticizing people of color in these coded ways. It can mean property tax opponents impugning the decency of teachers. It can also mean those who support higher property taxes questioning the decency of those who favor tax restraint.
We can have a conversation about property taxes with care and nuance. There are reasonable positions on both sides of this issue, and we can advocate for lower, higher, or stable property taxes from a racial justice perspective. What we cannot do is discuss property taxes while ignoring the real connection we all have to one another in society, or by throwing others under the bus as less than ourselves. What we can not do is forget that we belong to one another — that we are entwining — and that while we do have a responsibility to care for our families, we also have a responsibility to all members of our village and society. While we advocate for our strongly-held beliefs, let us also to remember to advocate for one another in a spirit of empathy.
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