Ava Cilia is a law student in the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and guest contributor on this blog.
Last week, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The Plan includes historic provisions to address generations of systemic racism and discrimination towards “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” (SDFRs) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). SDFRs are defined by USDA as individuals who “have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities,” including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian farmers and ranchers.
John Boyd, a fourth generation Black farmer and the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, recently said, “we’re quite frankly, faced with extinction. If we can’t get a new generation of young people involved in agriculture and farms, Blacks and other farmers of color into farming, you won’t see it.” That is why groups like the National Black Farmers Association have praised the inclusion of the provisions to address systemic racism at USDA in the COVID-19 relief bill. As put by Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of Black Belt Justice Center, “this is one of the most significant milestones in Black agrarian history.”
Roughly half of the $10.4 billion set aside for agriculture support in the Plan is earmarked for SDFRs. The bill includes an estimated $4 billion in direct relief payments to SDFRs in amounts up to 120 percent of outstanding debt owed by each farmer or rancher.
In addition to debt relief, the bill contains slightly over $1 billion to provide technical assistance and outreach related to USDA’s programs to SDFRs; grants and loans to improve land access and to address issues related to heirs property; funds to support the work of equity commissions that will address racial equity issues within USDA; and money to support research, education, extension, and scholarships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), 1994 Institutions that serve Native Americans, and Hispanic-serving institutions.
These provisions are drawn from the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which was introduced by Georgia Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock in February. Sen. Warnock explained that the legislation, “will not only help farmers of color, but will also lift up the economies of our rural communities working to recover from the economic turndown.”
No Republican Senator voted to pass the bill. In fact, many prominent Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, were vocal opponents of the inclusion of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. In response, Mr. Boyd said, “the lack of lawmaker support was a ‘sickening realization,’” that shows “how disconnected half the Senate is from Black farmers.”
Resistance to the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act fails to recognize the decades of systemic discrimination against Black farmers and other farmers of color at USDA. As far back as the 1960s, the federal government has acknowledged that USDA discriminated against Black farmers by denying them access to credit, technical assistance, and the other agency programs available to white farmers. This legacy and culture of white supremacy has resulted in “massive transfers of wealth from black to white farmers.” Despite settlements resulting from class-action lawsuits brought by Black farmers alleging racial discrimination in USDA’s administration of loans and assistance, the federal government has failed to repair the harm done to farmers of color. As explained by McCurty, “Only 4.8 percent of Pigford I settlement went to debt relief. The vast majority of Black farmers were left with unconscionable debt and no legal recourse to save their land.” Today, Black farmers comprise just 1.4 percent of the nation’s farm owners and tend to only 4.7 million acres of the country’s farmland.
Black, Native American, and Hispanic farmers have been organizing to combat USDA’s racist policies, to reclaim their land, and to produce generational wealth. Organizers from these movements have noted that while the inclusion of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act is a promising development, it is only a first step. Additionally, others have cautioned that the way the debt relief and $1 billion in grants are ultimately administered will determine the impact of the provisions. “Hopefully the money won’t go to conducting studies,” Lloyd Wright, a former director of USDA’s Office of Civil Rights said, “Black farmers have been studied to death.”
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