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Black farmers say Warren’s plan wouldn’t solve their biggest problem

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a presidential hopeful, signs a poster at the Iowa State Fair. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

More than 60 black farmers, advocates and academics have signed onto a letter critiquing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s farm plan, saying it fails to adequately help African American farmers.

The letter, being circulated among liberal agriculture and civil rights activists, says presidential hopeful Warren (D-Mass.) has failed to take on structural problems at the Department of Agriculture, which they call an “out of control agency” that employs “on-going discrimination” that harms blacks in the farming community, according to a draft of the letter.

Warren’s plan largely focused on consolidation in the agriculture industry and leaves the USDA intact. It does include a section on black farmers and proposes auditing the department to be sure it’s not discriminating, increasing funding to existing initiatives that offer legal services to those in danger of losing their farms, earmarking more funds for loans to minorities and fully funding the department’s civil rights office.

“We feel as though you just can’t throw money at the problem at USDA,” said Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, who helped write the letter and is collecting signatures for it. “You have to do a major overhaul of the system and make it functional.”

In the letter, the advocates said they “applaud” Warren’s efforts to address black farmers and noted that she’s the only potential Democratic nominee to do so. But they also called on her to “correct factual errors” and “refashion” her plan into a proposal that “would provide black farmers, at long last, with some measure of justice,” according to a draft.

The loss of black-owned farmland is a major concern among civil rights groups and academics who say that racist federal policies have led to blacks losing their land at much higher rates than whites and Hispanics. The problem has roots in the post-Reconstruction era but has persisted to modern times, with an estimated 6 million acres of black-owned farmland dispossessed from 1950 to 1969, according to a September cover story in the Atlantic titled “The Great Land Robbery: The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms.”

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Warren has set herself apart in a crowded field of candidates by releasing a stream of policy papers. The strategy has fueled her rise in polls and has, so far, bolstered her image as someone who favors major changes to the federal government and knows exactly how she’d achieve these goals.

To date, most of the complaints about her policies have come from the center or right, with critics saying that her ideas are a mixture of unworkable, unconstitutional or too extreme. What’s unusual here is that Warren’s farm plan is being criticized by liberals saying her vision lacks the big, structural changes central to her candidacy.

Warren typically has tried hard to address the needs of blacks in her various plans and makes a point of talking about eradicating systemic racism in her stump speech. It’s part of her larger attempt to woo African American voters key to securing the Democratic nomination and who have so far been cool to her candidacy.

“We have reached out to the group,” said Saloni Sharma, a spokeswoman for Warren’s campaign, after The Washington Post shared a draft of the letter with them. “We appreciate their concerns and will look forward to talking about it with them and addressing them.”

Sharma also defended Warren’s original proposal, saying it “takes steps to end the historic and systematic dispossession of black-owned land, strengthens oversight at the USDA and expands access to credit for black farmers.”

But black farming advocates say the USDA must be totally overhauled to address land loss. They also say the Department of Agriculture’s office of civil rights has become an “enemy of civil rights” because concerns raised by blacks aren’t taken seriously, and that the office’s leaders should be dismissed.

A spokesman for the USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the draft letter, advocates call on Warren to endorse reparations for black farmers who have lost their land. They propose creating a land trust that would buy land from retiring black farmers and set it aside for younger black farmers, and requiring federal agencies to provide better data on black farm losses. Another key complaint among advocates is that Warren’s plan fails to eliminate a system that gives county-level committees significant influence over distributing federal resources to farmers.

The letter also objected to the section of Warren’s plan that focuses on the black-owned farms that have been lost when the older generation retires or dies and the younger family members are unable to agree on whether to continue farming or afford to continue. The advocates say the issue known as “heirs property” isn’t the driver in land dispossession for blacks. Instead, they point to racist policies and outright discrimination.

“By framing heirs property as the main problem facing black farmers, your plan shifts attention away from the many other challenges we face,” according to the letter. “We urge you to not only get the history of land loss right, but to also get the solutions right.”

Lucas said that he wasn’t consulted before Warren issued her policy and is unaware of any black farming advocacy organization that helped her. Furthermore, he said he was troubled by a report in the New York Times that former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, also a former Iowa governor, helped craft the policy.

“Instead of fixing the problem, he pretended the problem was fixed,” Lucas said of Vilsack’s record on black farm dispossession.

The letter also references Vilsack. “We urge you to listen to black farmers, not to the powerful who have advanced their own careers by destroying our own,” according to the letter.

Vilsack defended his tenure at the department that he led from 2009 to 2017. “We did more than any previous administration in recent history to right the wrongs of the past,” said Vilsack, who was reached in China via text message. “We may not have satisfied everyone but we provided help to thousands of African-American farmers and I am fiercely proud of that fact.”

Sharma declined to say specifically whether Warren’s team contacted advocates for black farmers as they crafted the plan. “Our campaign discussed the plan with a number of farmers, advocates and researchers,” she said.