USDA to Begin Relief Payments to Minority Farmers Despite Lawsuit
WASHINGTON — The Department of Agriculture announced it will start making loan forgiveness payments to thousands of minority farmers in June as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Roughly $4 billion was set aside by the economic relief package specifically for Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other minority farmers to address years of systemic racism. In 1997, a class action lawsuit was filed by African American farmer plaintiffs who alleged the USDA unfairly withheld loans from them for years and failed to process subsequent complaints.
The lawsuit, known as Pigford v. Glickman, was settled in 1999 and around $1.06 billion in cash relief, tax payments, and debt relief had been paid to the farmers in adjudication, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“For Black and minority farmers, the American Rescue Plan could represent one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in decades,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an op-ed for USA Today. “That’s because deep within the law is a provision that responds to decades of systemic discrimination perpetrated against farmers and ranchers of color by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The law directs USDA to pay off the farm loans of nearly 16,000 minority farmers and begin to address long standing racial equity challenges that have plagued farmers of color for generations.”
For generations, agricultural communities across the nation have undergone a steep decline in Black farmers. In 1910, Black farmers accounted for 14% of the United States farming population, but today they only represent 1.4% of the farming population, according to the Associated Press.
Years of discrimination resulted in a section of the 1990 “Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act” that defines a “Socially Disadvantaged Farmer or Rancher” as either an individual or a group that have been “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity,” according to the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. Further provisions included in the 2008 Farm Bill granted “improved access to farm programs for beginning, limited-resource, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.”
But now the payments to minority farmers face a different sort of legal challenge — a class action complaint filed by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and America First Legal. In the complaint, Miller alleges the racial exclusions of the debt relief program violate the Constitution.
“As a nation, we are devoted to the task of satisfying these sacred ideals and providing equal rights to citizens of all races, as the Constitution requires,” the text of the complaint reads. “Profound progress has been made, and extraordinary milestones reached, throughout our history, serving as an inspiration to humanity and the nations of the world.”
The complaint continued, “Yet, today, the Department of Agriculture lurches America dangerously backward, reversing the clock on American progress, and violating our most sacred and revered principles by actively and invidiously discriminating against American citizens solely based upon their race. This is illegal, it is unconstitutional, it is wrong, and it must stop.”
America First Legal was founded by Stephen Miller, senior policy advisor for former President Donald Trump. In his announcement of the complaint, the former Trump advisor quoted the late Martin Luther King Jr., stating, “Americans ‘should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”
USDA responded in a statement saying it was reviewing the complaint and cooperating with the Department of Justice but would continue “to implement the debt relief to qualified socially disadvantaged borrowers” in the meantime.
“This is a major step,” Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said on Twitter. “Now in the wake of the pandemic, we can finally start to level the playing field, helping socially disadvantaged farmers in Georgia and beyond.”
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