Black Farmers Head to Capitol Hill to Fight for Economic Relief

Tucked into President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is a $5 billion relief package for minority farmers -- about a quarter of whom are Black. The funds are meant to help those hardest hit by a legacy of discrimination and a cycle of debt that has skewed landownership in the United States to be 98% White.

That inequity stretches back to more than a century ago, but it's just as evident now: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said just 0.1% of Trump’s Covid-19 relief for American farmers went to Black farmers, according to an interview in the Washington Post Thursday. That means Black farmers got $20.8 million of $26 billion in two rounds of payments from the Trump administration.

John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association, will today testify before the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday to call for accountability from Vilsack and the USDA on relief for Black farmers.

“Doors continue to be closed to many Black farmers and today our members face enormous challenges, including a system that disproportionately leaves them behind,” Boyd said in a statement ahead of his testimony.

It’s not the first time Boyd will be in front of Congress to testify on the state of Black farmers in America.

In between the 1960s civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement lies a lesser-known fight for equality. Starting in the 1990s, Black farmers fought back against a system of discrimination long perpetuated by the U.S. government. Specifically, the Department of Agriculture.

This week on The Pay Check, we look at the role of farming, and farm land, in the racial wealth gap. In the U.S., the top five White landowners in the U.S. own more land than all the Black landowners combined. This episode tells the story of the largest class action lawsuit in U.S. history, Pigford v. Glickman, where tens of thousands of Black farmers sued the USDA, and won.

Pigford, and a subsequent suit called Pigford II, funnelled $2 billion into the hands of Black farmers. The payments were meant to compensate for the USDA’s discrimination against Black farmers when doling out loans and disaster payments, an inequality that led to foreclosures and millions of acres of lost farmland.

The settlement delivered what some consider the nation’s first meaningful approximation of reparations for Black Americans, and it underscored the forces that have caused Black people to lose 90% of their land since 1910.

Today, Black people own less than 1% of America’s farm lands. White people basically own the rest.

Thomas Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M University, estimates that the lost land and economic potential add up to a $1 trillion impact that laid the groundwork for White people to accumulate almost seven times more wealth than Black people today.

Boyd stresses the importance of owning the land he farms on episode 3 of The Pay Check podcast. “Land is the most powerful tool that you can possess,” he says. 

“If you don’t own any land as a group of people, you don’t have any bargaining power.”

When Boyd bought his first farm in 1984 as an 18-year-old, he couldn’t have imagined that more than a decade later he’d be guiding two mules -- named “40 acres” and “Struggle” -- around Washington, D.C., to protest racist lending practices. He just wanted to carry on his family’s tradition of farming, which stretched back to the Civil War.

“My grandfather would say ‘You can’t leave your PhD to your children, but I can leave my poor raggedy farm. You know, give them some financial stability.’ Land is it,” says Boyd.

But keeping his land, as Boyd and so many other Black farmers would later find out, wouldn’t be easy. Particularly vexing were his dealings with a local USDA loan officer, who he says rejected his loan requests and spat on him.

Over and over, Boyd was denied the annual operating loans that virtually all farmers need to keep their businesses afloat. Without the loans, he lost his ability to plant and earn money off his farm. He fell behind on his debt, and his land was eventually seized. That launched Boyd into a decades-long fight that eventually culminated in the two class action lawsuits. As a result of the suits, the USDA paid out $2 billion -- mostly in $50,000 payments --to thousands of farmers who experienced discrimination at the hands of the U.S. government.

For many farmers, the money was “a real shot in the arm,” Boyd says. But it was only one step toward reversing a century and a half of discrimination at the hands of the U.S. government. “Did it give the land back? No. Was it enough to make the discrimination go away from the USDA? The answer is no,” he says.

Listen to the episode for more, and subscribe to The Pay Check, now in its third season, for a deep dive into the racial wealth gap. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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