When President Joe Biden arrived in office promising to address decades of discrimination against Black farmers, the bar for improvement could hardly have been set lower.
But pushback and lawsuits from White farmers led the Biden administration to backtrack on its commitments to address these and other longstanding inequities. Billions promised to Black farmers in Biden’s first Covid relief bill were withdrawn in favor of billions for distressed farmers of any color in the Inflation Reduction Act. Now, frustrated Black farmers are suing the government to make good on what it promised in the first place. Mending fences won’t be easy.
In 1920 there were 925,000 Black farmers, accounting for 14% of all US farmers. Today there are roughly 45,000. White farmers, too, declined over the last century (due to farm consolidations, primarily). But this was not an equal decline. Had Black farmers faced attrition at the same rate as White farmers, there would be at least 250,000 more Black farmers today.
Well-documented discrimination and racism at the US Department of Agriculture accounts for much of the disparity. For example, in 1965, the US Commission on Civil Rights observed that Black farmers didn’t receive the loans and other assistance given to White farmers in similar economic circumstances.
The consequences are an economic tragedy. In the early 1900s, Black families owned almost 20 million acres of farmland, the largest amount of property that Black Americans would ever own. By 1997, they had lost 90% of it. According to one recent study, the lost wealth and income amounts to at least $326 billion.
There’s no recouping that wealth or what it might have made possible for generations of Black Americans. But there is the chance to obtain justice.
In 1997, Black farmers successfully sued the USDA for discrimination in lending between 1981 and 1996. The judgment was the largest civil rights settlement in US history to date, with $2.3 billion in claims divvied out in $50,000 increments to 33,256 claimants.
It was a symbolically important judgment, but it didn’t change much. In 2019, the Government Accounting Office found that “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” a category that includes Black farmers and other groups that have been subjected to discrimination, received proportionately fewer loans and farm credit than White farmers. This year, 59% of Black farmers under 40 reported challenges accessing capital to grow their businesses, compared with 41% of young American farmers of all races. Meanwhile, few farmers found their operations transformed by an extra $50,000; that’s not enough to put a down payment on a decent used tractor.
To address these disparities and others, the Biden administration included $4 billion in debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers in its early 2021 Covid relief package. Qualifying farmers with certain types of USDA loans could have the balances paid off, in return for agreeing to certain binding conditions. “Debt relief gives me a jump-start,” John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told me in a phone conversation. “It provides me that opportunity to invest and grow, finally.” Thousands of additional Black farmers accepted and signed the deal, and invested in additional equipment and land expecting to receive the money in a matter of weeks.
That money never arrived. Conservative legal groups filed at least 13 lawsuits arguing that the relief discriminated on the basis of race, and courts issued injunctions on the distribution of relief. Many Black farmers who agreed to the debt relief conditions, and invested in new land and equipment, are now in financial distress, with some even fearing foreclosure. The Biden administration, rather than risk a court ruling that might undermine other programs designed to address past discrimination, supported the repeal via a provision in August’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Boyd is seething over what he sees as a broken promise. “It’s 40 acres and a mule all over again,” he said, referring to the unfilled Civil War-era promise to cede slaveholder lands to former slaves. Last month, he joined a group of Black farmers in a class-action suit against the federal government, seeking damages over the withdrawn debt relief.
The Biden administration and congressional allies have tried to make amends. The Inflation Reduction Act created a $3.1 billion program to help “distressed borrowers” of any background, and $2.2 billion for farmers who have faced discrimination and can prove it. But Boyd and other Black farmers worry that, among other issues, these race-neutral provisions will simply ensure that more aid will go to White farmers, as it always has at the USDA.
Debt relief, however it’s delivered, won’t be sufficient to restore trust between Black farmers and the federal government. Nonetheless, the Biden administration can help by ensuring that the process to disburse funds to distressed farmers proceeds quickly, rather than tying it up in years of rulemaking. It can also help by prioritizing claims for the thousands of Black farmers who agreed to debt-relief terms in 2021, followed by farmers who have previously settled class actions against the US government for discrimination.
Long term, the administration can boost the fortunes of Black farmers by enhancing programs designed to help smaller farmers and ranchers in general. For decades, the USDA has favored large producers, most of whom are White, at the expense of smaller producers and resilience in the food supply chain. A more equitable system could lift up Black growers and improve food access for everyone. A loan forgiveness program aimed at Black students and professionals who enter farming would be one way to encourage a new generation of small, farmers. Boyd suggests a fund that could help smaller farmers — not just Black farmers — acquire the land and infrastructure to grow their operations. “White, small-scale farmers hurt, too,” he reminds me. “But if you’re Black they treat you even worse.”
We have the seeds for a better, more equitable agriculture industry. The federal government needs to get on with the business of planting them.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Reduce Poverty, Not Wealth and Income Inequality: Tyler Cowen
• Hiring a Diverse Team Is About to Get Much Harder: Noah Feldman
• What’s Not on Sunak’s To-Do List? Ending Racism: Pankaj Mishra
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.