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Biden administration tries to address generations of USDA racism against Black farmers and others


Biden administration tries to address generations of USDA racism against Black farmers and others

Jun 14, 2024 | 11:44 am ET
By Robert Leonard
Biden administration tries to address generations of USDA racism against Black farmers and others
(USDA photo by R. Anson Eaglin)

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I was at a meeting early last week organized by a private company for farmers to learn how to receive tax credits and other funding from the Biden administration’s “climate-smart” programs that encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

Being a news guy, I asked someone from the company how many people were at the conference. “We just figured it out,” he replied with a grin, “Three hundred twenty-nine people are here.”

I walked back to the main conference room and sat with a white friend, whose husband is Black.

“Three hundred twenty-nine people are here and there’s not one Black person in the room,” I said.

“I noticed,” she replied.

I attended the Iowa History Conference last Thursday. It was wonderful. I learned so much.

Ricki King, a panelist in the “Writing and Preserving Iowa’s Agricultural History” discussion mentioned last December’s first-ever Iowa Farmers of Color Conference, and all panelists joined her in relating the importance of sharing Black farmer stories as part of telling our story — Iowa’s story.

With these two conferences converging last week, I wondered about the societal processes at work that kept Black farmers out of the room at the farming conference. I purposefully am not naming that conference or its organizer because I don’t want anyone to conclude without evidence that racism played a role in the absence of Black farmers. The conference was organized in part because the organizer offered unique services that farmers in the room could purchase in order to obtain a maximum return from the government for embracing climate-smart agriculture.

I suspect the only color the organizer saw when he looked into his audience was green.

With respect to the Iowa Farmers of Color Conference, from the ISU Extension website:

At the first Iowa Farmers of Color Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on December 16, 2023, 114 people gathered to discuss opportunities and challenges facing farmers of color. The keynote speaker was Dr. Dewayne Goldmon, Senior Advisor for Racial Equity at USDA. … Dr. Goldmon graduated with a Ph.D. in Agronomy at Iowa State University (ISU) in 1991. … In 2020, he received the ISU George Washington Carver Distinguished Service Award. Dr. Goldmon encouraged farmers in the audience to reach out to USDA offices, such as the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to provide assistance with loans and cost-share programs, including those for implementation of conservation practices and organic transition. A complete guide to USDA services for historically underserved farmers can be found here: https://www.farmers.gov/sites/default/files/2022-07/farmersgov-historically-underserved-factsheet-07-20-2022.pdf 

Don’t bother clicking the link. It’s dead. Here’s what you will find.

Biden administration tries to address generations of USDA racism against Black farmers and others

The link is dead because Republicans killed the programs.

Historical injustice and racism at the hands of the USDA denied Black farmers and other groups access to resources that white male farmers took for granted, and the Biden administration made a historic effort to begin to make amends for the generational economic damage the USDA caused, and Republicans were having none of it.

How extensive was the racism?

In 2021, the Environmental Working Group published Timeline: Black Farmers and the USDA, 1920 to the present. It is exquisitely detailed, including links to all reports and actions. Get ready for a bumpy and uncomfortable ride — it’s a long list.

Generational racism at the hands of the USDA has generated mistrust of the agency among Black and other farmers (this “PBS News Hour”  documentary illustrates the effects that continue to this day). But Republicans resist any action to support Black farmers that might in some small way begin to address the historical damage. The link to those programs is dead because Republicans demolished those programs as part of their assault on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that have also impacted other federal small business programs, and our public schools and universities to the point of banning books and seeking to erase minority populations from history.

The Washington Post reported on June 10 that Republicans are blocking these and many similar programs across several agencies in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning affirmative action in college admissions. The Post’s reporting focuses on the recent decision by a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas to bring to the end a program focused on disaster relief for minority farmers. The judge sided with a group of plaintiffs who allege that the program illegally discriminates against white male farmers, the Post reported.

According  to the Post, the attorney for the white plaintiffs dared to declare:

“America’s farmers have been mistreated by this Administration for years now with one discriminatory scheme after another,” said Braden Boucek, vice president of litigation at the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which is representing the plaintiffs. “This ruling is a win for equality across the country, and we are proud to stand beside these farmers in holding the government accountable.”

The judge in the case was Matthew Kacsmaryk, best known for blocking the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion medication mifepristone. (The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed that ruling Friday.)

One of the plaintiffs in the case sued in part because, according to the Post, “after he and his wife applied for disaster relief, his wife received $71,900 under the program, while he received a 10th of the amount: $7,272.”

Poor baby.

The Post quoted Virginia farmer John Boyd Jr., who said it’s hard for Black-owned farms to compete when farm subsidies overwhelmingly go to White farmers. He said setting aside resources to help Black farmers is necessary to correct the disparity.

“No matter how good a farmer I am, I can’t compete with those resources,” Boyd said, according to the Post. “The Black farmer is facing extinction and we’ve got to put laws in place to protect them like you would any other endangered species, so we can pass on generational wealth to the next generation of Black farmers.”

Why are so many Republicans fighting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs when they make so much sense?

Because for them it is all about power and control. They want the landscape to stay the same as it is now, where they are in power. They aren’t interested in the different ideas that will certainly come from Black and other minorities in any situation where those ideas are elevated. They want their narrative to remain the only one.

And with respect to Black and other underserved farmers who were historically discriminated against, the incentives the Biden administration was offering had NO IMPACT on the amount of support white male farmers would get.

It’s not pie.

If a Black farmer gets a slice of pie it doesn’t mean a white farmer doesn’t get one.

It just makes the pie bigger for all.

I don’t know why there were no Black farmers at the ag conference. Perhaps they weren’t invited. Perhaps justified skepticism of USDA programs kept them away.

I don’t know the financial situations of any of the white farmers in the room at the ag conference.

I do suspect, however, that most if not all of them were born into generational wealth that wouldn’t have been built without USDA assistance Black farmers were denied.

The organizer of the conference certainly did. He’s a seventh-generation white Iowa farmer.

Timeline: Black Farmers and the USDA, 1920 to the present

1920 – USDA records 925,708 Black farm operators – 14% of all U.S. farmers.

1933 – New Deal legislation to address low crop prices by reducing acres of farmland displaces many Black farmers.

1964 – Share of Black farm operators falls to 5.8%.

1965 – U.S. Commission on Civil Rights finds USDA discriminated against Black farmers when providing loans and conservation payments.

1968 – Commission on Civil Rights finds Black farmers continue to face discrimination when seeking farm loans and assistance.

1970 – Commission on Civil Rights finds “Discrimination persists in the operation of some Agricultural programs,” noting that “there are also no civil rights staff in the [USDA] field offices.”

1981 – USDA report notes that Black and minority farmers are “disproportionately represented in poverty groups” and that these types of farms have less access to needed credit.

1982 – Share of Black farm operators falls to 2%; Commission on Civil Rights documents discrimination that led to the decline of Black farmers.

1983 – Reagan administration dismantles USDA Office of Civil Rights.

1990 – House Committee on Government Operations report finds rampant discrimination in USDA loan programs.

1993 – Report by Westover Consultants finds USDA not held accountable for civil rights violations.

1994 – U.S. Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger files a memo detailing USDA’s authority to award monetary relief to Black farmers.

1995 – U.S. General Accounting Office report finds USDA fails to address racial discrimination; General Accounting Office report finds widespread underrepresentation of minority farmers on county USDA committees.

1996 – Consultant D.J. Miller report finds Black farmers do not get fair share of subsidies, disaster payments or loans; National Black Farmers Association holds demonstration outside the White House.

1997 – Share of Black farm operators falls to 0.9%; USDA’s Inspector General documents a “climate of disorder” among civil rights staff; GAO report on Farm Service Agency cites lack of diversity; Congressional Black Caucus holds first-ever forum on discrimination against Black farmers; Black farmers file historic discrimination complaint against USDA; USDA publishes Civil Rights Action Team Report detailing a long history of racial bias and discrimination by the agency.

1998 – USDA report cites the role of the agency’s discrimination in the decline of Black farmers.

1999 – John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, brings his mule, Struggle, to Washington, D.C., to protest USDA treatment of Black farmers; Settlement in Pigford v. USDA reached to pay Black farmers $1.03 billion. More than 22,000 Black farmers seek claims, but only 15,645 receive modest payments. More than 61,000 Black farmers file late claims, but only 2,585 are accepted.

2000 – Senate Agriculture Committee holds hearing on discrimination against Black farmers.

2001 – Commission on Civil Rights finds Black farmers wait four times longer than white farmers for farm loans; More than 14,000 USDA discrimination complaints are filed between 2001 and 2008, but USDA finds only one has merit.

2002 – Black farmers rally outside USDA; Share of Black farm operators rises to 1.3 %; Black farmers receive $21.2 million in farm subsidies; white farmers receive $8.9 billion.

2004 – EWG and National Black Farmers Association issue report on USDA obstruction of Black farmer settlement.

2007 – Share of Black farm operators remains at 1.3%; Black farmers receive $38 million in farm subsidies; white farmers receive $10.6 billion; EWG and National Black Farmers Association issue report on subsidy gap between Black and white farmers.

2008 – GAO report details failure to address civil rights claims properly at USDA’s Office of Civil Rights; House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform holds hearing on discrimination by USDA; Congress allows Black farmers originally denied payments from Pigford settlement to reopen their claims.

2009 – USDA reopens discrimination cases and finds 3,800 of 14,000 have merit but that the statute of limitations has expired. Only 760 cases are addressed.

2010 – Boyd drives a tractor around Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers to call for funding for USDA discrimination cases; South Carolina court rules against USDA in favor of Black farmers who faced discrimination; USDA Office of Civil Rights seeks extension of statutes of limitation for discrimination complaints but fails to persuade Congress; Congress secures another $1.25 billion in payments for Black farmers previously denied payments.

2011 – The Pigford case’s monitor report highlights USDA’s failure to provide debt relief for Black farmers.

2012 – USDA reports that the share of Black farm operators rose to 1.7%; Black farmers receive $64 million in farm subsidies; white farmers receive $8.1 billion.

2014 – USDA reports 9% increase in the number of Black farm operators.

2016 – Share of USDA lending to Black farmers falls to 0.8%, and the USDA distorted data to discriminate.

2017 – Black farmers receive $59.4 million in farm subsidies; white farmers receive $9.7 billion.

2019 – Legal experts find USDA has overstated the number of Black farmers and distorted data; GAO report details challenges faced by Black and minority farmers when seeking agricultural loans; During presidential campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., releases detailed plan to address past and ongoing discrimination faced by Black farmers; Black farmers and advocates send recommendations to Sen. Warren.

2020 – Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduce Justice for Black Farmers Act.

2021 – Sen. Raphael Warnock introduces bill to provide debt relief to Black and minority farmers; GAO finds Black and minority farmers have less access to credit than white farmers.

Source:  Environmental Working Group

Robert Leonard’s column appeared originally at “Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture.” It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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