Over the past decade, Black Lives Matter organizers and other activists have cultivated renewed energy around the fight against racism in the United States. Senator Cory Booker (DN.J.) hopes to channel this energy through legislation that would reorganize the United States Department of Agriculture, a government agency that has often been referred to as “the last plantation”Because of his history of discriminatory practices.
The combination of racism, willful neglect and mistreatment by the USDA resulted in a 98% decrease in the number of black farmers between 1920 and 1997, according to analysis of Census Bureau and USDA data. Lack of support for small farmers – who were disproportionately black – resulted in a 90% loss of farmland owned by blacks between 1910 and 1997. In contrast, white farmers lost about 2% during the same period.
“It didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t a choice on the part of these farmers,” Booker said at a virtual roundtable in December hosted by the Southern Economic Advancement Project. “The loss of millions of acres of farmland worth hundreds of billions of dollars was primarily caused by systemic racism and discrimination within the USDA against black farmers.”
Booker introduced the Black Farmer Justice Act in 2020 and introduced it for the current legislative session earlier this month. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) And Tina Smith (D -Minnesota).
Booker said the bill was the result of conversations with black farmers and agricultural leaders, who applaud the attempt to restore black farm ownership, tackle current discrimination within the USDA and s’ tackle broader issues like the climate crisis and industry standards.
“[The government has a responsibility to invest in Black farming] because he dies every day. A lot of people just don’t trust the government, ”Corey Robinson, a cattle rancher in Pilot Point, Texas, north of Dallas, told Sojourners.
This lack of faith is due in part to the USDA failing to keep its own promises when it comes to black farmers. By the ministry’s own admission in various reports, discrimination and neglect by providing access to credit, disaster relief, crop insurance, and more, “has been a contributing factor to the dramatic decline of black farmers in recent decades.”
To address this problem, the Black Farmers Justice Act would create an independent watchdog to oversee the department’s civil rights office, where reports of discrimination are investigated. It would also impose a moratorium on foreclosures for farmers with pending civil rights complaints, responding to past accusations that investigations into these cases have been “slow walking” until the expiration of the limitation period.
The bill would also create an equity commission to study “the legacy of discrimination against black agricultural producers, including investigating discrimination in County Farm Service Agency committees and claimants who did not. receipt of payments under Pigford v. Glickman ”. Any farmer who has filed a claim under the benchmark Pigford 1999 cases would see their USDA debt canceled.
Warnock presented the same Colored Farmers Emergency Relief Act, which is currently included in the $ 1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. Warnock’s law would offer $ 4 billion in relief payments to help farmers of color “pay off USDA farm loan debts and related taxes, and help them respond to the economic impacts of the pandemic.” Structured in a similar fashion to the JBFA’s debt forgiveness provision, this would render that part of Booker’s bill moot if it remains under COVID relief. Warnock’s bill was passed by the Senate a party line vote, and the House will vote on the bill this week.
The land as a tool of justice
Sha’Von Terrell, Deputy Director of Black Church Food Safety Network, which works to connect black farmers to local black congregations, said the organization approved the bill because it contributes to the goal of food sovereignty for blacks.
Under the bill, the USDA is responsible for providing blacks with land grants of up to 160 acres – up to 20,000 grants over the next decade. The ministry would also pay for the training of those with no previous agricultural experience, and offer advantageous loans and mortgages to beneficiaries of land concessions.
“Our goal as an organization is to create community food systems that are supported by black community assets, such as the black church, in partnership with black farmers,” Terrell said. “But, in order for us to achieve that goal – to create these just food systems – we must first address these systemic problems.”
Justice, through investment in land, is something that resonates with the biblical themes that underpin the work of the BCFSN.
“The first job God gave humans was to cultivate and keep the earth,” Terrell said. “Giving back land to the black community, or any community that has been disproportionately affected by discriminatory and racist policies, puts them in a position to define food that is culturally appropriate for their neighborhood, for their region,” [and] for their culture in general.
The bill would also fund historically black college and university programs devoted to agriculture. Over the next decade, it would provide $ 500 million per year “to start new degree programs and expand existing degree programs focused on careers in agriculture.”
This investment in the future of black agriculture is seen as an essential part of restoring black America’s farmland. Robinson, the Texas breeder, told Sojourners he knew several young black farmers whose “biggest problem” was getting “the money and the resources” to start farming.
“I’m in a few Facebook groups, and there are a lot of young black people who want to get into farming or growing vegetables in their backyards, or in urban areas and vacant lots,” Robinson said.
“Some of the financial provisions of the Black Farmer Justice Act are exactly what is needed, not only for black farmers, but at all levels,” said Zach Ducheneaux, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. “We need to start treating agriculture and food systems as an investment, not a greed-based mechanism for agricultural finance institutions.”
The Native Farm Bill Coalition, of which the IAC is a member, supported Booker’s bill, with many other organizations, unions and coalitions.
Ducheneaux told Sojourners that the bill’s reforms and programs will benefit all farmers previously disenfranchised by the USDA, even if it focuses on black farmers.
“Having great coalitions to be able to have the conversations, to have these solutions on the table, is what is going to be able to build the necessary support to bring about these changes and systematic changes on a large scale”, Colby Duren, policy director and legislative advice to the IAC, said.
The USDA’s return to Vilsack
Confirmation of Tom Vilsack as USDA Secretary to President Joe Biden, the same role he held under former President Barack Obama, pushed the need for an overhaul and surveillance again in the spotlight.
In 2019, a survey by The Counter reported that Vilsack and USDA staff distorted and lied on a number of civil rights issues and distorted improvements among black farmers over Vilsack’s previous eight years as head of the USDA.
“There have certainly been immense improvements that could have been implemented while [Vilsack] was in office for eight years, ”said Jillian Hishaw, who worked for a year in the USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights office and founded and directs Family Resource Management Services. “The neglect of the black farmer is blatant, because of this this bill is necessary.”
At the December roundtable, Booker said now is the time to “expand the moral imagination”.
Farmers like Robinson appreciate that the bill corrects previous USDA discrimination, genuinely offering black farmers the same assistance that is offered to white farmers while simultaneously investing in the future of black agriculture through land grants.
“They need to open up, share the available programs and make it a level playing field,” said Robinson. “No one is asking for a handout, just a level playing field.”