Colorblind Tax Enforcement

This seminar will be co-hosted by the Centre for Business Law and Practice and the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies.


The United States Internal Revenue Service (‘IRS’) has repeatedly taken the position that, because the IRS does not ask taxpayers to identify their race or ethnicity on submitted tax returns, IRS enforcement actions are not affected by taxpayers' race or ethnicity. This claim, which the paper terms ‘colorblind tax enforcement,’ has been made by multiple IRS Commissioners serving in multiple Administrations (both Democratic and Republican). This claim has been made to members of Congress and to members of the press.

In this paper, the IRS position that racial bias cannot occur under current IRS practices is refuted. The paper achieves this by identifying the conditions under which race and ethnicity could determine tax enforcement outcomes under three separate models of racial bias: racial animus, implicit bias, and transmitted bias. It then demonstrates how such conditions can be present across seven distinct tax enforcement settings regardless of whether IRS asks about race or ethnicity.

The IRS enforcement settings analyzed include summonses, civil penalty assessments, collection due process hearings, innocent spouse relief, and DOJ referrals. By establishing that IRS tax enforcement practices remain vulnerable to racial bias, this paper also challenges the IRS decision to omit race and ethnicity from the collection and analysis of tax data. The absence of publicly available data on IRS enforcement activities by race should not be interpreted as evidence that no racial disparities exist.

The paper concludes by describing alternative approaches to preventing racial bias in tax enforcement other than the current IRS policy of purported colorblindness.

Speaker bio

Professor Jeremy Bearer-Friend is an Associate Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School. His scholarship views taxpaying as a civic act that shapes a citizen's relationship to government. His research examines the omission of race and ethnicity from federal tax data, the use of administrative discretion to shape the civic features of taxpaying, and the potential of elective in-kind contributions to government in lieu of, or in tandem with, cash payments. Professor Bearer-Friend also writes on the taxation of business entities. His work in this area examines the asymmetric design of federal tax remittance for wages relative to business income, M&A tax incentives that encourage monopolies, and the use of political indicators to measure the incidence of the corporate tax. Professor Bearer-Friend joined GW Law after serving as Visiting Assistant Professor of Tax Law at NYU, where he taught courses on federal estate and gift tax, tax procedure, and tax policy. Prior to academia, Professor Bearer-Friend was Tax Counsel to Senator Elizabeth Warren. Professor Bearer-Friend was also an associate with DC tax boutique Ivins, Phillips & Barker, where he advised clients on federal income tax, estate and gift tax, and employee benefits matters. Professor Bearer-Friend regularly advises journalists, think tanks, presidential campaigns, and congressional staff on tax law. His research has been cited by the U.S. Treasury Department, in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, and by numerous think tanks and scholars. In 2021, Professor Bearer-Friend was named a Fulbright Scholar to the National Library of Scotland, where he will study the anti-poll tax movement and the use of capitation in tax policy.

This one-hour event will be moderated by Professor Rita de la Feria, School of Law, University of Leeds.

Booking information

This event is free and open to all (registration is required). It will be held in the Moot Court, School of Law, University of Leeds and also streamed live via Zoom for those who can’t attend in person.

Zoom joining instructions will be sent 24 hours before the event via email once you have registered.

Register via eventbrite