Op-ed: Banks are Fighting Debt Relief for Black Farmers. It’s No Surprise. | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Banks are Fighting Debt Relief for Black Farmers. It’s No Surprise.

On the heels of $4 billion in debt relief to Black farmers, banks are reviving familiar racist practices to deny loans to farmers of color.

Handy Kennedy, founder of AgriUnity cooperative, feeds his cows on HK Farms on April 20, 2021 in Cobbtown, Georgia.

When three of the biggest banking groups in the U.S. were found to be lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to keep the agency from extending $4 billion in debt relief to Black farmers—arguing that they don’t stand to make enough of a profit from the deal—I wasn’t surprised.

Banks are some of the most racist institutions in American history. Their long history of racial discrimination is well documented, especially the use of redlining to deny people of color home loans. But less well known is the role that private lenders played in the dramatic loss of Black-owned farms.

Since the Civil War, banks that routinely made loans to white farmers refused to extend credit to Black farmers. Instead, many Black farmers had to become “sharecroppers” who farmed the land owned by white landowners in return for a share of crops. USDA loan programs created to supplement private lending systems also engaged in systematic discrimination.

The net result is that the number of Black farmers has fallen dramatically—from more than 900,000 in 1920 to less than 50,000 today.

The fact that these public and private lenders systematically denied and delayed Black farmers loans, subsidies, and other benefits for decades has also created an uneven playing field between white farmers and those Black farmers who remain. In effect, discrimination is baked into these lending programs.

Government payments and private loans are both tied to farm production. And because Black farmers tend to own less land and run smaller operations, they also receive smaller government payments and smaller loans—if they receive private loans at all—than their white counterparts.

As a result, many more Black farmers are at risk of foreclosure than white farms. About 13 percent of borrowers with direct loans from USDA are currently delinquent on those loans. But, for Black farmers, the number is much higher at 35 percent. And it is not only Black farmers who face the possibility of losing their farms—approximately 24 percent of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency direct loans to Latinx, Asian American, and Indigenous farmers are also currently in default.

The debt relief and other investments provided by the American Rescue Plan Act are an important first step. Debt relief In particular will make Black farmers like me more creditworthy—and that’s what makes the recent efforts by private lenders to block debt relief especially disturbing.

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Do they plan to make loans to Black farmers like me? Or do they want us to remain dependent on USDA loans from the “last plantation.”

Thanks to studies and reports by the U.S. Commission on Civil Right, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the USDA itself, discriminatory behavior by the government is well documented. For example, the Commission on Civil Rights found that Black farmers had to wait three times longer than white farmers for farm loans—and those delays often kept them from having the resources they needed to plant their crops.

Current laws allow private lenders represented by the American Bankers Association, Independent Bankers Association, and the National Rural Lenders Association to continue to discriminate against Black lenders in secret, and there is little in the way of required transparency.

But now is the time to lift the veil of secrecy around private lending to farmers of color. Congress should update federal laws to require mandatory disclosure of private farm loans by race and gender. What’s more, the Equity Commission being created by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should make discrimination by private lenders a priority for review.

In particular, the USDA’s Inspector General should work with her counterparts at the Farm Credit Administration and the Department of Justice to ask the question every Black farmer has on their mind at the moment: Are private lenders part of the problem—or part of the solution?

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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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