Nobody doubts that Black agricultural landowners are struggling as their numbers plummet, but critics argue that the economic stimulus package’s $5 billion set-aside for non-White farmers and ranchers is not the way to help.
The naysayers include Rep. Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican whose grandfather was a farmer. He argued Wednesday that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan’s debt relief earmarked for socially disadvantaged “farmers of color” represents racial discrimination.
“I’m deeply concerned that Congress feels emboldened to perpetuate a modern-day form of racial segregation rather than provide relief to those who need it most,” Mr. Owens said in a statement. “My grandfather, a respected farmer in the 1950s and ’60s Black middle class, would be mortified by any policy that seeks to discriminate based on race. Racism was and will always be wrong.”
He and Rep. Tom Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, plan to unveil Thursday a bill that would bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture “from discriminating or providing preferential treatment to any person on the basis of race, color, national origin or sex.”
The debate over targeting relief funding on the basis of race comes with the plight of Black farmers and ranchers gaining attention in Congress and the Biden administration.
The House Agriculture Committee held a March 25 hearing on the state of Black farmers, who represent 0.9% of U.S. agricultural landowners, their numbers falling from nearly 1 million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000 of the nation’s 3.4 million farmers, according to National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd Jr.
A fourth-generation farmer in Southside, Virginia, Mr. Boyd said Black farmers are “facing extinction,” thanks to the USDA’s “differential treatment and discrimination.”
“By providing debt relief to Black farmers and other farmers of color, the American Rescue Plan Act begins to fulfill the promises of the Black farmer lawsuits and, more importantly, gives new life to Black farmers facing foreclosure,” Mr. Boyd said in his testimony. “But there is still much more to be done to right these historic wrongs and to ensure that Black farmers remain part of the fabric of American agriculture.”
Certainly the USDA has an acknowledged history of racial bias. Since 1999, the department has paid out more than $2 billion to settle claims of discriminatory loan practices against Black farmers stemming from the class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack vowed at the hearing to “do everything we can to root out whatever systemic racism and barriers may exist at the Department of Agriculture directed at Black farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and people who live in persistently poor areas in rural America.”
He touted a provision in the stimulus package earmarking $4 billion for Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian American farmers to pay off 120% of outstanding debts, as well as $1 billion for training, education, technical assistance, grants and loans.
The provision, pulled from the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act introduced by Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia Democrat, was intended to “address the historical discrimination against socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and address issues,” but critics described it as fighting one form of discrimination with another.
“It’s one thing to gear relief programs to farmers who have fallen on hard times and are struggling to make ends meet,” Mr. Tiffany said. “But it is fundamentally unfair for the government to treat farmers differently based on immutable characteristics.”
Heritage Foundation senior fellow Mike Gonzalez described the earmark for minority farmers as fighting racism with racism.
“We cannot have racial color-conscious laws in America,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “This is going to wind up in the courts. And it should.”
Indeed, the provision’s legality has been called into question. Hans Bader, a civil rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., called the measure providing debt relief to all farmers except White ones “an unconstitutional racial preference.”
“To be constitutional, there would have to be evidence of recent, widespread discrimination against minorities by the federal government in access to agricultural loans or subsidies,” Mr. Bader said in an email. “But such discrimination has not occurred in recent years.”
Mr. Vilsack said the earmark for “farmers of color” represents “a historic step forward in responding to the cumulative effect of discrimination in the past,” but Mr. Bader argued that a “racial preference can’t be used to ‘remedy’ discrimination in the distant past.”
He cited the 1987 Hammon v. Barry case in which the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled that “discrimination against minorities that is not recent — like discrimination 14 years ago — does not justify race-based affirmative action in their favor.”
The plan to group Black agricultural landowners with those of Hispanic, Asian and American Indian descent is also problematic, given that courts have struck down racial set-asides for minority groups without the same history of discrimination as Black Americans.
“So even if this racial preference were fine as to black people (it isn’t), it would be invalid as to other racial groups,” Mr. Bader said in the email. “Finally, the complete exclusion of whites from debt relief would be invalid even if a preference for minorities were permitted.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott argued that the USDA is still plagued by systemic racism and that the Pigford settlements were “too little, too late for the Black farmers who lost their farms and livelihoods due to longstanding, systemic discrimination.”
“And this systemic discrimination continues to be felt by Black farmers today, who are still disadvantaged in USDA programs,” said Mr. Scott, Georgia Democrat.
Mr. Vilsack agreed, saying that despite the good-faith efforts of the past, “more needs to be done to dig deeper into the systemic causes and barriers that perpetuate discriminatory practices and to deal directly with the cumulative effect of discrimination.”
He praised the stimulus for “the transformative debt relief it provides to Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and other farmers of color.”
Mr. Tiffany argued that the race-based relief runs afoul of the Constitution.
“To extend assistance to some farmers but not others based on race undermines the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection for all Americans,” Mr. Tiffany said. “If we are serious about ending discrimination in the agriculture sector, the first step is for the government to stop doing the discriminating.”