The US Department of Agriculture was scheduled to begin sending out payments to Black and minority farmers this month, as part of a $4bn loan forgiveness program. The money was intended as a way to address more than 100 years of discriminatory practices and policies that have historically and disproportionately disadvantaged Black owners of farmland.
But a lawsuit on behalf of white farmers is accusing the Biden administration of discrimination due to an injunction granted this month by a federal judge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Around the country, there are other lawsuits against debt relief to Black and minority farmers with claims of discrimination against white farmers, including one in Texas backed by the ex-Trump adviser Stephen Miller.
According to Rodney Bradshaw, of Jetmore, Kansas “My feeling before [the injunction] was that we’re finally getting some justice that was due to us after the Pigford agreement [a discrimination settlement in the late 1990s]. Now, it’s that promises to Black farmers are always put on hold,” says Bradshaw. He is a descendant of Black settlers with a more than 100-year legacy of farming in Kansas, but that legacy is as threatened as ever today, he says, because of racism that has been allowed to run rampant, and in some cases been historically supported, by the USDA. “There’s higher concentrations of Black farmers in the south. We had four major Black settlements here in Kansas, and they’re basically all gone – wiped out through systemic racism and discrimination.”
Black farmers peaked in number in 1920 when there were 949,889; today there are only 48,697; they account for only 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million farmers (95% of US farmers are white) and own 0.52% of America’s farmland.
Part of the reason was displacement of Black farmers due to New Deal legislation, whose purpose was to help farmers by paying them to reduce crop production, thereby forcing food prices to rise. But white farmers used the money to purchase mechanical farming equipment and pushed out Black sharecroppers whose work was no longer needed due to the decreased production. Disenfranchisement didn’t stop there. In 1965, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that the USDA discriminated against Black farmers when providing financial assistance payments and loans. In 1999, the Clinton administration admitted that the USDA’s loan practices were discriminatory, in what is now known as the Pigford settlement.
The Pigford settlement was named for the Black farmer Timothy Pigford of North Carolina, who was the lead plaintiff in a victorious 1997 class-action lawsuit – still the largest civil rights settlement ever won against the federal government. It was supposed to pay just over $1bn to Black farmers, but less than 16,000 payments were received, even though more than 22,000 claims were filed. There were also tens of thousands of denied claims due to late filings, which Black farmers and their legal representatives blame on mismanagement of USDA communication of deadlines.
Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, which works to enhance what it calls restorative land justice through a community-controlled land and financial cooperative known as the Black Agrarian Fund, believes the USDA has previously engaged in deliberate obstructionism, and said in a statement to the Guardian that the Pigford settlement has had disastrous consequences in terms of denying Black families the ability to hold on to their farmlands. She wants more debts forgiven.
“According to USDA data, only 2,000 out of the 17,000 farmers of color with direct loans with USDA are Black/African American and less than 5% of all Black farmers will receive debt cancellation. We have been grappling with these devastating numbers and the theft of Black farmlands by USDA through the Pigford lawsuit,” McCurty says. On the recent injunction, she says: “A colleague reminded us, ‘It is always going to be all deliberate speed if it’s on white supremacy’s time.’”