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Four policy changes that could improve race equality in America

For daring to suggest that the social unrest in Baltimore following Freddie Gray's death was about race, I received the usual spate of critical emails. Many included one or both of two victim-blaming tropes.

The first: For decades the city has been run by African Americans and Democrats, who only have themselves to blame.

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Fair enough. But widespread social pathologies including high dropout rates, rising births out of wedlock and drug addiction plague rural America, which is represented overwhelmingly by conservative white Republicans. Do commentators ever characterize these problems as "white Republican" political failures? Nope.

The second trope: Because the black birth rate to single mothers tops 70 percent, the city's problems are really about missing fathers.

Another fair point. But at 29 percent, the white out-of-wedlock birth rate today is higher than it was in the black community 50 years ago when the U.S. government published the so-called Moynihan Report chronicling the decay of the black family. Now imagine what would happen if President Barack Obama and a black attorney general commissioned a national study lamenting the decaying values of America's white families.

Bottom line: There's a white standard and a black standard, and anyone who believes otherwise is deluding himself.

So what would you do about it, professor? A few readers politely asked me to provide solutions, not just critiques. OK, fair enough. Here are four policy changes that might lead to greater race equality in America:

#1: Cut the rate on the Social Security portion of the payroll tax by 2 percent, and double the cap against which it is applied.

Unlike income, capital gains, inheritance and luxury taxes, the payroll tax rate has never been lowered, except for two years during the Obama administration. Moral crusaders fulminate incessantly about the value of hard work and low taxes, yet they never call for lowering the only tax levied exclusively on work. Combined with the so-called "carried interest" loophole millionaires use for tax avoidance, the payroll tax is the reason Warren Buffet's secretary pays a higher net income tax rate than he does.

#2: Gradually phase out the mortgage interest deduction.

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Home buyers factor the deduction's write-off into their purchasing calculus. Because the tax break allows people who might otherwise afford only a $200,000 mortgage to buy $250,000 homes, the artificially inflated housing prices ultimately raise costs on renters. Those with existing wealth and strong credit ratings (and even second homes) benefit most. Reduce the maximum mortgage deduction value limit of $1 million by $100,000 per year, and within a decade home and rental prices will both drop.

#3: Gradually phase out the subsidy for employer-provided health insurance.

The health care subsidy is the only tax preference that costs the federal government more annual revenues than the mortgage deduction. (Ask employed homeowners if they benefit from federal programs, however, and most will scoff, "not me.") If Obamacare is socialist health care, so is this tax break. I can't think of a stronger argument for creating a single-payer system — not the same as government-provided health care, by the way — than this tax deduction.

#4: End property tax-based school funding.

Along with our employer-based health care system, America's other ill-conceived major policy is property tax-based education funding. Because even a low tax rate applied against a high tax base yields ample revenues, the best schools tend to be located in the richest areas, perpetuating existing inequalities. Property tax-based education funding is another horrible policy legacy from which the nation may never recover or break free.

Notice that none of the above proposals are overtly race-oriented. Indeed, few Americans bother to consider the racial implications of any of these policies. Because all four policies presently favor those with jobs, homes, property wealth or income derived from non-work, white Americans benefit disproportionately as a result of their cumulative, historical asset advantages. This is not a matter of opinion.

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Now: Good luck finding politicians calling for any of these reforms — all four of which, mind you, would benefit the rural and urban poor alike, whatever their color. Neither group wields much political power, however, so expect political intransigence and economic disparities to continue.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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