Op-ed: $4 Billion in Debt Relief Is a Start, but the Fight is Not Over for Black Farmers | Civil Eats

Op-ed: $4 Billion in Debt Relief Is a Start, but the Fight is Not Over for Black Farmers

The American Recovery Plan includes billions for Black farmers and other farmers of color, but it is just the first step on the long road to justice.

a black farmer looking over his fields

Like many other Black Americans, I was born into a family of farmers. I spent every summer with my grandparents, who owned a 117-acre farm in Virginia. It was during those summers that I became connected to the land and was called to be a farmer.

I bought my first farm in Virginia from Russell Sallie, another Black farmer, in 1983. My businesses producing wheat and soybeans and raising cattle started to grow, and so did my financial obligations.

Knowing there were programs available for businesses like mine, I started to look for financial assistance. I started with the Farmers Home Administration, a subdivision of the U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA) that was created to distribute loans and grants to farmers, businesses, and rural communities.

Sallie, who introduced me to the Farmers Homes Administration, told me, “Good luck with those folks up there. They don’t like Black farmers.”

From the start, my efforts were unwelcome. I encountered open disrespect—bullying, racial name-calling, resistance to processing my credit applications, and a hostile environment—when I showed up for appointments.

I soon realized that these intimidation tactics were reserved for Black farmers seeking help. This insight spurred me to take action to hold the USDA accountable. Along with a group of other Black farmers, I started to file complaints against the department in 1986.

When that didn’t produce results, we visited the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights. It turned out to have only two employees—and files that had been gathering dust since the 1960s. I knew my next step had to be legal action.

One after another, our complaints were dismissed, but we learned a lot in the process. In 1995, I helped start the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) to advocate for African American farmers.

NBFA members held a demonstration in front of the White House in 1996 that gave us the chance to discuss our complaints with the secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman. Yet no systemic changes were made to disrupt the USDA’s discriminatory practices toward Black farmers.

A year later, the USDA Civil Rights department reopened and other members of NBFA and I attended a hearing on USDA loan discrimination held by the Congressional Black Caucus. Still, nothing substantial changed. So, we continued to fight, momentum began to grow, and we filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA in 1997.

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After many years, our lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was finally settled, finding that USDA systematically denied subsidies and loan to farmers of color and requiring the USDA to pay 22,000 Black farmers $50,000 each. It was a small step in the right direction. But many farmers—around 70,000— missed the chance to receive a payment. And few received the promised debt relief that was agreed to in the terms of the settlement.

In 2018 and 2019, the USDA gave farmers more than $23 billion in bailout payments for relief from Trump’s disastrous trade war. Ninety-nine percent of that money went to white farmers.

Now, the promise of debt relief seems to be finally realized with Congress recently passing the American Rescue Plan Act—the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. Included in the legislation was money for farmers—$4 billion in debt relief for Black farmers and other farmers of color.

It’s an important step, but it is not the final step on the road to justice for Black farmers. The only way to correct the long history of discrimination is to undo it completely. Justice requires land restoration for farms that were taken away under a century of unfair laws, and an end to the disparities in the treatment of Black and white farmers.

Case in point: In 2018 and 2019 alone, the USDA gave farmers more than $23 billion in bailout payments—money intended to offer relief from former President Trump’s disastrous trade war with China. Ninety-nine percent of that money went to white farmers. In 2020, the agency handed out $9.2 billion in COVID bailout payments—and again, it mostly went to white farmers.

Those bailout payments were made on top of the generous annual subsidies. While Black farmers received about $60 million in annual subsidies in 2017, white farmers received about $10 billion. And that does not even include crop insurance subsidies, which also flow overwhelmingly to white farmers.

The racism that was baked into subsidy programs for decades is now a feature, not a bug.

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That is the picture provided by the USDA itself. The full picture may even starker. We don’t know, because the USDA refuses to provide the data on individual subsidy recipients by race, and Congress has blocked us from knowing who receives crop insurance subsidies altogether.

Some members of Congress claim that this recent round of debt relief for Black farmers was akin to “reverse discrimination.” But in fact it’s a small but important down payment, as House Agriculture Chairman David Scott recently said, toward righting the wrongs of the recent past.

Our fight for justice is far from over.

John Wesley Boyd Jr. is a Baskerville, Virginia farmer, civil rights activist and the founder of the National Black Farmers Association. Read more >

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  1. Thank you for your decades of fighting to end racial discrimination at the US Department of Agriculture.

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