WTF does race have to do with taxes?
GENE DEMBY, HOST:
What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.
LORI LIZARRAGA, HOST:
And I'm Lori Lizarraga.
DEMBY: And on this episode, we are talking taxes.
LIZARRAGA: Oh, taxes. They're ridiculous. They're complicated. And, to be honest, Gene, they're kind of scary.
DEMBY: Listen. Listen. So I keep thinking about that viral tweet that goes something like, my son asked me to explain taxes. So I gave him a bag of M&M's and told him that he has to give me some of those M&M's. And I know how many of those he has to give me, but he has to guess himself. And if he gets this wrong, he goes to prison.
LIZARRAGA: Which is a fun way to explain taxes as candy and prison as prison.
DEMBY: But like you said, Lori, taxes are ridiculous. They're scary. But this is CODE SWITCH, baby. What do taxes have to do with race and identity, right? Well, as it turns out, kind of everything.
DEMBY: Today on the show, we're going to get into how our tax system has benefited white people, how it's hurt Black folks, and we're going to talk to the person who helped uncover how race, in all these ways we might not realize, affects just how much we owe in taxes.
LIZARRAGA: Just this January, in fact, there was a giant study by Stanford University and the Treasury Department that got a lot of attention for drawing that exact connection.
DANIEL HO: The big thing that we found in the paper - it's a really disturbing finding - is that Black taxpayers are three to five times as likely to be audited as everyone else.
LIZARRAGA: Three to five times more likely to be audited if you are Black - a finding that you, like us, are probably WTFing (ph).
DEMBY: That voice belongs to Daniel Ho. He's the professor at Stanford who led this study, and he and his team were WTFing this too. But that's not all they found. The study also uncovered that the IRS is way more likely to audit lower-income earners who claim certain tax benefits. Daniel said that's in part because it's just cheaper and easier for a cash-strapped agency like the IRS to go after folks like them because they're kind of the lightest lift. All the IRS has to do in these cases is just slap a stamp on an envelope, mail those taxpayers an audit notice and, if those lower-income taxpayers don't respond, they just don't get their refund. So that's money in the bank for the IRS.
LIZARRAGA: Right - 'cause in any given year, the IRS is trying to recover around half a trillion dollars...
LIZARRAGA: ...In taxes that are owed but go unpaid. And it's way harder to go after rich folks who are - let's be real - probably better at hiding their money. And they have money to hide.
DEMBY: Exactly. And just to get back to the race stuff, it's like, how are these racial disparities in who gets audited even happening, right? 'Cause it's not like we fill out demographic information like that when we do our taxes.
HO: We also don't think that what is going on here is any evidence of explicit bias - after all, IRS doesn't observe race and ethnicity of the taxpayer - but really stem from sort of existing institutional priorities and selection processes for how audits get surfaced.
DEMBY: But what goes into that selection process for how the IRS decides who to audit is a secret, so we don't really know why the IRS decides who to come for.
LIZARRAGA: And that's the inherent dilemma of this official colorblindness - right? - where race isn't explicitly part of how agencies like the IRS does its business.
DEMBY: Right. And in some cases, it's essentially against the rules for some federal agencies to even collect race data. And that doesn't mean that racial discrimination isn't there, that it's not happening. It just makes it harder to detect, which is exactly what the study highlighted.
LIZARRAGA: When Stanford published all this earlier this year, it got a lot of attention. The IRS denied that there was something amiss in how people were being audited based on their race, to which their critics were like, well, how would you even know if you're not keeping track of racial data?
DOROTHY A BROWN: So this IRS, we can't be racist 'cause we're colorblind - really? That's just a accident? Stuff happens? No, I'm not buying that.
DEMBY: That is Dorothy A. Brown. Dorothy is a law professor at Georgetown. She's a tax lawyer by trade. And, for the purposes of this episode, she is the author of "The Whiteness Of Wealth: How The Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans And How To Fix It."
BROWN: When the IRS said, we don't know your race, it was never the truth. You know what the IRS knows? Your name and your ZIP code. When you give me a ZIP code, I can tell you what the race of the person whose tax return I'm looking at is.
DEMBY: That's exactly where Daniel and his colleagues started when they were on the hunt to suss out whether there was racial discrimination happening with these tax audits. So they started with people's names and their ZIP codes to get to other demographic information, like race, which is exactly what Dorothy is talking about because...
LIZARRAGA: I knew you were going to say this.
DEMBY: (Imitating air horn) ...Housing segregation is in everything.
LIZARRAGA: There it is.
DEMBY: I mean, I guess it should be, like, a sad trombone, like (imitating "The Price Is Right" losing horn).
LIZARRAGA: Yeah, yeah. This is still very bad.
DEMBY: It's still very janky. But really, though, in this case, Daniel and his crew did not have demographic data from the IRS, so how could they draw this connection between race discrimination and tax audits? Well, they did have census data, which gave them a good idea of where people lived and an even better idea of the race of the people in the neighborhoods in which anyone lives because - housing segregation.
LIZARRAGA: And they knew which census blocks were being audited the most.
DEMBY: Yes, exactly. So they could compare who was being audited the most...
DEMBY: ...Against all the demographic data they collected to prove there was, in fact, a disproportionate number of Black folks being audited.
LIZARRAGA: And all those proxies show just how intentional you have to be to figure out whether something colorblind is fair and useful or actually just discriminatory.
DEMBY: Mmm hmm. Yep. Daniel's study on race in audits kicked off a furor in Washington, but he says all this really started with Dorothy Brown.
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. Daniel said Dorothy was a pathbreaker in illuminating how race shapes America's tax system.
DEMBY: And what's bananas, Lori, is that Dorothy became an expert on this completely by accident.
BROWN: I wanted a job in law where I didn't have to deal with racism because, growing up in the South Bronx, I dealt with racism a lot. So I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. And I decided, well, I want to do law that has nothing to do with race. I know. I'll be a tax lawyer because the only color that matters is green. And here I am. Race is a critical component of tax, and it just hasn't been thought of that way.
DEMBY: I wanted to know more about Dorothy's superhero origin story, and she said that her revelation about how much race gets braided into our tax policy came about when she sat down to help her parents do their taxes. So I asked Dorothy to set the scene.
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BROWN: Yeah. So, you know, as a result of having an accounting degree, I did my - you know, like every good child, I did my parents' tax returns. And every April - you know, every time I did their tax returns, I was struck by the idea that I thought they paid too much in taxes, that I couldn't figure it out. So my mother was a nurse in a nursing home, and my father was a plumber for the New York City Housing Authority. So each of them made roughly equal amounts of income, and each of them made half of what I made. So, you know, I would - whenever I did their taxes, this issue came up. But I had a real job, right? So I didn't have time to sit and think about why they were paying too much in taxes. But I - it always nagged at me.
And fast forward - when I was a law professor, I actually had time. So I decided to just start reading race publications, to start reading about race and to put my tax lens on the race data to see if I could make the connection that way 'cause there's lots of race data but not viewed through a tax lens. And I came across a study put out by the Commission on Civil Rights on the economic status of Black women. And I'm reading it, and it says that married Black women contribute 41% to household income. And that was my eureka moment. That means nothing to anybody else but to these tax eyes, oh, my gosh.
My mother and father earned roughly equal amounts. And what our tax law does to those married couples is cause their taxes to increase when they marry. So when I saw that, I said that's why my parents are paying so much money in taxes - 'cause they're married to each other. If they were single, living in a household, their tax bill would not have been as high as it was because they were married.
LIZARRAGA: OK, so Dorothy's lightbulb moment came about when she realized that couples earning the same or similar wages get hit harder when they file their taxes jointly, right?
LIZARRAGA: But we know that, historically, Black married couples were way more likely to have two income-earners because, well, you know, racism. I mean, Black people were paid less for their labor. Both spouses needed to work to make ends meet. So all those Black married couples were being paid less and paying more in taxes?
DEMBY: Listen, listen. This is what made my brain explode out of my ear when I was reading Dorothy's book. Like, isn't being married supposed to help your financial situation?
DEMBY: I mean, marriage is such a huge part of the discourse around Black economic stability that there was even a policy by the George W. Bush administration trying to get Black folks to get married because the argument was it would help Black people build wealth and to catch up with white folks. And Dorothy and I got into all of this in our conversation about how the marriage benefit in taxes has really been a marriage penalty if you're Black.
BROWN: In fact, you know, one of the reasons people on the right argue Blacks are living in poverty is because we're not married, right? Then what you find out is, yeah, when we're married, our taxes go up. So that's not - marriage isn't helping us. And how it works is, there are certain couples that get tax cuts when they get married. Those are the single-wage-earner households, where one spouse works in the paid labor market, and the other spouse stays at home.
BROWN: We don't tax the value of the stay-at-home services. We just tax the wages of the paid-labor spouse. Those are the married people who get a tax break from marriage. When you have two spouses working and contributing roughly equal amounts, their tax bill goes up. They'd be better off living together, as the right would say, in sin and paying less taxes and building wealth.
DEMBY: And so there's a point in the middle 20th century in which married white women start entering the workforce, too, right? And so you would think that this penalty that married, double-income partners are facing would hit white people, too, right? Like...
BROWN: Oh, you've nailed it. When I first started doing this research, there was always a category of married white couples who looked like married Black couples, in terms of their spouses contribute roughly equal amounts. That number was small in the beginning, and then grew over time. And, in fact, I believe the reason that the Trump tax cuts minimized or eliminated the marriage penalty for significant percentages of married couples is because white folks started facing what Black folks faced decades ago. So what the 2017 tax cuts did was eliminate the marriage penalty for married couples who make less than five or six hundred thousand dollars. And I believe it was because a significant percentage of white couples started experiencing marriage the way my parents were.
DEMBY: So they started experiencing marriage the way your parents were, in the sense that white women were making...
BROWN: Roughly equal amounts to their...
BROWN: Yes, to their spouses.
DEMBY: And, no offense, Dot, but talking about taxes and racism is really unsexy. So how do you get people to pay attention?
DEMBY: I'm not trying to shade, you know, tax law, but...
BROWN: No. Welcome to my world, Gene, OK? I've been - but here's the thing. I have been writing about race and tax since the mid-to-late '90s. You and I would not be talking had I not written the book "The Whiteness Of Wealth" and it had not gotten the attention that it got. So what I realized is writing law review articles that nobody reads isn't helping my cause. And my cause was transforming the national conversation on tax policy so that you could never think about taxes again divorced from systemic racism. Or, as I say, tax policy is a civil rights issue.
DEMBY: Coming up, y'all, we're going to get into that history with Dorothy, who says we need to treat these problems in our tax system with more urgency.
BROWN: We cannot solve the racial wealth gap without making sure it's not perpetuated by our tax policies. It's the silent wealth killer for Black families.
LIZARRAGA: Stay with us, y'all.
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DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.
LIZARRAGA: We've been talking about how race shapes the way Americans do taxes, like why the marriage benefit is really a marriage penalty for Black folks. And maybe no one has been sounding the alarm on this louder than Dorothy A. Brown. I think we all know by now that our tax system is shaped by wealth and class. Most of us are not experiencing the tax system the way that rich folks are.
DEMBY: Right. And as we learned while researching this episode, there are all sorts of set asides and tax breaks for stuff like, you know, owning horses and owning a private plane or building a pool and paying to keep that pool in good condition.
LIZARRAGA: All those normal people things, which is why I keep telling my partner to get me a plane and a pool and a pony, Gene, for tax reasons.
DEMBY: Listen; I'm going to come visit for tax reasons.
LIZARRAGA: OK, Gene, so how did we get here?
DEMBY: Yeah, so Dorothy helped me trace some of the booby traps in our tax system, like how our tax code supercharges discrimination in housing and even how it makes it harder for lots of Black folks to pay back their student loans. So I asked Dorothy to walk us through the history of our modern tax system, whereby some people get tax breaks on the front end and reap all the benefits on the back end, while a lot of other people get neither.
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DEMBY: So I think, at this point, we all know that tax policy, the tax code, redounds to the benefit of the rich, like, rich people, in countless ways.
DEMBY: But how - one of the arguments you make in the book is that the tax code has historically worked specifically against Black folks.
DEMBY: Can you explain how that has happened?
BROWN: Yes. So in the beginning, only the rich people paid taxes. And then, basically, we had World War II. We had to move from only the richest Americans to basically everybody else, right? Then we had the New Deal, so it cost more money. So you had this expanded tax base. But think about it. Black Americans are paying taxes, too, to a federal government that excludes them from New Deal provisions. And nobody's offered to give us our money back, right? We're paying for second class citizenship. We're paying for separate but equal, right? So we're paying for discrimination.
DEMBY: Could you actually elaborate on this idea that you see this explosion...
DEMBY: ...Of New Deal policies that are really popular, right? But also you get FHA loans.
DEMBY: You get all of these things that basically create...
BROWN: GI Bill that excludes the Black GI.
DEMBY: The GI Bill.
DEMBY: You basically subsidize the creation of the white middle class.
BROWN: Of white wealth, yeah.
BROWN: Yes. So we're paying taxes that's funding the government that's making sure that, you know, my parents weren't eligible for an FHA-insured loan, or my grandparents - right? - that were making sure that returning Black veterans didn't have access to education loans, didn't have access to home loans. But those Black veterans, when they were working, was paying taxes into a system that was disadvantaging them. And it was paying for a system that was propping up the expanded homeownership rate. So from 1940 to 1950, we saw a minority of white homeowners become a majority of white homeowners with the assistance of federal policy and with Black taxpayers helping to foot the bill.
So for example, think about the tax subsidies for homeownership that came in - well, that have been in the code since the beginning. And then there's a certain provision if you sell your home at a gain that came in 1951. Well, in 1951, the majority of white Americans were homeowners. So they could benefit from that provision. We have never had a point in time where the majority of Black Americans were homeowners. So any tax subsidy for homeownership is a tax subsidy designed for white Americans.
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DEMBY: So I mean, it seems like it's basically impossible to, like, extricate home ownership from taxes, right?
DEMBY: And the wisdom goes, you know, buy a home. You get a bunch of tax breaks.
BROWN: Yes. Yes.
DEMBY: That helps you build family wealth. It's really central to the way, as you know - like, the way you talk about...
DEMBY: ...Fixing the wealth gap...
DEMBY: ...is, like, getting Black people into homeownership. And one of the things you found that kind of blew my mind is that the tax break that's supposed to come with homeownership is not even really a thing.
BROWN: So first of all, you know, we have the mortgage interest deduction. And economists, who don't agree on much, agree on this. The mortgage interest deduction does not encourage anybody to buy a home.
BROWN: So that tax break does nothing to the homeownership rate. And the tax break that says when you sell your home at a gain is a wonderful thing, except research shows that Black Americans are far less likely to be able to have that gain on sale. And we don't allow a tax break for losses. And Black Americans are more likely to sell their homes for a loss.
DEMBY: Can we talk about that? Can you just explain that a little bit?
BROWN: Sure (laughter). Sure. But it starts with the backdrop of where you started, that there's this idea that because white Americans were able to build wealth through homeownership, Black Americans can mimic that. And Black Americans cannot mimic being white, which is what really is the reason why white Americans have built homeownership wealth.
Where we live is in different neighborhoods. So most Black homeowners live in racially diverse or all-Black neighborhoods. Most white homeowners live in all-white neighborhoods. And since the majority of homebuyers are white homeowners or prospective white homeowners, their preferences make the market. They're not interested in buying homes in all-Black or racially diverse neighborhoods. They're only interested in buying homes in neighborhoods with very few Black Americans. So if you are the only Black homeowner in an all-white neighborhood, then that's a really good financial investment for you. You're going to build wealth the way your white peers do. But it's going to come at a price.
BROWN: Your white neighbor may call the cops on you.
BROWN: If you have children and you send them to school, they're going to get tagged as delinquents, even though they're engaging in the same behavior that their white peers are. So there's all this racism you're going to have to deal with. Whereas, if you buy in an all-Black or racially diverse neighborhood, you don't have those issues, but you have issues of being able to sell your home or being able to borrow against it so that you can put your kid through college, right? So homeownership for Black Americans does not work the same way as it does for white Americans. It just isn't - it isn't the same as, well, it worked for them; it should work for us.
DEMBY: I mean, my wife and I bought our house in D.C. during the pandemic, and that was one of the things. Like, oh, we married now. We bought a house. We about to feel all these tax breaks. We pay taxes every year. We never get money back. We're like, oh, we thought it was going to be less. Our tax burden is - might be a little bit higher than it was before, but, you know...
BROWN: It's a wash.
DEMBY: It's a wash, right? Like, it's - I mean, you know, we're not paying a landlord, which is good.
BROWN: Right. And you're building equity.
BROWN: But it's not this panacea that people make you think it is.
DEMBY: I'm going to turn to student loan debt.
DEMBY: So a lot of discourse around student loan relief, student debt relief has centered on the racial justice angle, that Black folks carry a bigger debt burden because we have so much less household wealth than white families. And so, when we go to college, we...
DEMBY: ...Have to take out more loans to finance college. But you say that how much debt that people are carrying because of their race is also shaped, in a bunch of invisible ways, by tax policy. So how are taxes part of that story?
BROWN: So one of the biggest breaks is an interest deduction for student loans. The problem is it's capped at $2,500. And when you look at the average debt load of a college graduate or even a not college graduate, which I'll get to in a minute, it's higher for Black Americans than white Americans. So they usually have more debt, and they're capped out, right? So the $2,500 does not allow...
BROWN: ...Most Black taxpayers their full interest deduction, right? And it's worse. If two Black college graduates get married, when they were individual filing, they each had a $2,500 cap. When they get married, they both have a total $2,500 cap.
DEMBY: Wait. I'm sorry. Why?
BROWN: Yes. Hello.
DEMBY: Why would they - why would that go - why wouldn't that just be, I mean, debt...
DEMBY: Well, I guess their credit becomes...
BROWN: But still, it's the joint return. But it's like, the idea that you don't make an accountability for two people being married with student debt is ludicrous, right? That's a tax policy angle that could be fixed, right? But - you know, so the worst of all possible worlds is for two Black college graduates to get married, right?
DEMBY: Oh, my God.
BROWN: Because they've got this high debt load (laughter), and then they can't take the interest deduction. So that's, like...
DEMBY: So I'm imagining a scenario where two Black college graduates get married, can't take an interest deduction on their debt load.
DEMBY: They buy a house, right?
DEMBY: They have all these - right? And then they also are dealing with the marriage penalty because they probably make something...
BROWN: (Laughter) Yes.
DEMBY: So I'm like, oh, my God.
BROWN: I once had a student say, so, professor Brown, are you saying that we shouldn't get married? I said, do not go home and tell your grandmother that. I did not say that.
DEMBY: Like, all these students come to a tax law class, and they come out of class like, our professor told us not to get married, not to buy a house and that college was going to be - might be a drag on our earnings down the line.
DEMBY: They're like, oh, my God, what did I sign up for?
BROWN: And the most depressing chapter in my book was the college chapter because that's when I came across the statistic that said 60% of Black students who start college don't graduate.
DEMBY: That's me. Yeah.
BROWN: And they leave with huge amounts of debt. It was heartbreaking. That statistic just blew me away.
DEMBY: So I'm a Black college dropout, and I still carried a big debt...
BROWN: Yes. See?
DEMBY: ...You know, once I applied to college and didn't finish. How does the tax system show up in the way I file my taxes? How does that affect our financial outlooks?
BROWN: Right. You know, there's research that shows the student debt load is a drag on Black folks and, therefore, increases the racial wealth gap, that by forgiving student debt, or at least by forgiving Black student debt, you'd make quite a dent in the racial wealth gap.
DEMBY: So you just named, like, all these ways, these sort of landmines built into our tax policy, like, our...
DEMBY: ...Economic system. Is there a way - can we quantify how much that means over generations for Black folks, like, the way that this drag that tax policy exerts on Black people and non-white people more broadly?
BROWN: You know...
DEMBY: Do we know how much that is?
BROWN: The easy answer is no. The easy answer is no. But I could imagine at some point, Gene, some economists having an answer to your question. This is how much - this is the quantification of it. And part of why I wanted to make the book accessible and I wanted - is I wanted other people to pick up the charge, right? So my book focuses on Black and white. I want other people to focus on Hispanic Americans. I want AAPI, Indigenous Americans - there's all kinds of systemic racism that's built into the code where taxpayers of color are disadvantaged, not just Black taxpayers. So I'm excited about the other research that's been done.
DEMBY: It's worth me and Lori jumping back in right here to remind y'all that it was Dorothy's research that led to the study that Daniel Ho and the team at Stanford released in January, the one that we said got all this attention in Washington.
LIZARRAGA: So much so that Senator Ron Wyden, the head of the Senate Finance Committee, put Daniel Werfel, the new head of the IRS, on the clock to get to the bottom of these racial disparities.
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RON WYDEN: This is something the IRS has to address. If you're confirmed, what will you do to uncover the reasons for the racial disparity in audit selection and what we do to correct it?
DANNY WERFEL: Right now, not being at the IRS, I don't yet have a good sense of what the issue is, what the causes are...
WYDEN: Let's do this - will you commit, within 60 days of being confirmed, that you will get back to us and give us the underlying reasons, in your view, why there is this discrimination and what you'll do to correct it within 60 days?
WERFEL: I will absolutely, as soon as I get to the IRS, talk to those individuals that are working this issue and report back to you on what we're finding.
WYDEN: Sixty days.
WERFEL: Understood, Senator.
WYDEN: All right.
DEMBY: Just as we were finishing up this episode, the IRS announced an $80 billion plan to modernize the way that it collects taxes. And part of that plan is meant to find ways to analyze whether the IRS is discriminating in its auditing.
LIZARRAGA: Which sounds vague, like the IRS is making a plan to look for the racial discrimination Daniel Ho and his team already found. But I will say in terms of the larger plan, we are hearing the IRS actually acknowledging racial disparities in a way that we haven't before, which, you know, I guess does give me some hope that some of these disparities will actually begin to be addressed. And it's all kind of wild that Dorothy was responsible for lighting the match that started all of this.
DEMBY: Right? Like, she went into law specifically to stay away from race. That's why she went into tax law. And now race and taxes - that's kind of her legacy.
BROWN: So, you know, every April 15, the tax code, which disadvantages Black taxpayers while advantaging white taxpayers, increases the racial wealth gap. So we could solve the racial wealth gap tomorrow, but it would be started again next April 15. So we cannot solve the racial wealth gap without making sure it's not perpetuated by our tax policies. And people tend not to draw the connection between those two. It's the silent wealth killer for Black families. We need to make this a core component of every tax policy conversation we ever listen to.
DEMBY: The feeling I'm left with - and again, I feel this way after so many of our episodes - is I'm both glad we know this now and also low-key distraught. Dorothy said knowing how the tax code affects you can help mitigate some of the damage. When we do our own taxes, we should file them and organize our finances defensively and strategically.
LIZARRAGA: And that might offset some of this on the margins, but it's not a big policy fix, Gene, and it can't make up for all these years of Black folks having more of their earnings taken from them.
DEMBY: But now because of people like Dorothy Brown and Daniel Ho and the folks at Stanford, we know that there are booby traps out there lying in wait.
DEMBY: So happy tax day, y'all.
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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. We want to hear from you. Our email address is email@example.com. Follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch.
LIZARRAGA: This episode was produced by James Sneed with help from Olivia Chilkoti. It was edited by Courtney Stein and Dalia Mortada and engineered by James Willetts.
DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive, B.A. Parker, Veralyn Williams, Leah Donnella, Kumari Devarajan, Karen Grigsby Bates, Diba Mohtasham, Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. And we want to give a big shoutout to Diba Mohtasham and Olivia Chilkoti. Diba has been a producer on our team for about a year now, and she is moving on to the next big adventure. And Olivia Chilkoti has been our intern, and she's onto the next thing.
LIZARRAGA: It's both their last week on the show. We will miss them. Good luck, ladies. We have enjoyed working with both of you so much. And just want to give a quick shoutout to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you, and thanks for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.
LIZARRAGA: I'm Lori Lizarraga.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
LIZARRAGA: Call your dad.
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