Will Biden Finally Deliver Justice to Black Farmers?

Malcom X called land ownership the basis of all freedom. At the time he spoke in 1963, freed slaves and their descendants had already lost millions of acres of farmland in the South, seized through unfair foreclosures and forced sales.

Despite the progress made during the civil rights movement, the crisis of Black land loss only deepened. From a peak of one million Black farmers in 1910, there are fewer than 45,000 today. In a century, the overwhelming majority of Black farmers have been dispossessed of their land.

Senate Democrats this month introduced two bills that finally aim to stop the seizure of Black-owned farmland and restore a lost heritage. One, led by Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock (and now rolled into President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package), calls for $5 billion in direct relief to Black, indigenous, and Latinx farmers.

The other is far more sweeping legislation led by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. The Justice for Black Farmers Act seeks to end a legacy of discrimination within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and would transfer about 20 million acres of land to a new generation of farmers. The bill would authorize the USDA to spend $8 billion a year over 10 years acquiring farmland to grant to Black and underserved farmers at no cost.

Leveling the playing field in U.S. agriculture is long overdue. And while the Justice act, which spans 78 pages and hundreds of provisions, has little chance of passing in its entirety, it has crystallized an urgent call to action: Biden's administration and the 117th Congress now have a responsibility and an opportunity to reverse a long legacy of injustice.

The loss of Black-owned farmland stems from discriminatory practices within the USDA exposed by decades of investigative reporting and lawsuits against the agency. Government records document a long history of agency officials rejecting, delaying and minimizing loans to Black farmers while the process was made easier for white farmers.

Without loans or access to USDA support programs such as crop insurance and disaster relief, Black farmland became increasingly vulnerable to forced sale and foreclosure. Black land ownership has plummeted 90 percent since the early 20th Century, compared with a 2% decline in White-owned farm acreage.

Only recently has this issue begun to get more public attention. A new generation of farmers is leading a resurgence of interest in Black agriculture, evidenced by the social media movement #makefarmersblackagain. Biden spoke to the issue during his presidential campaign, and his USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has vowed to “root out” racism in his agency.

While even the authors of the Justice Act acknowledge it's a long shot, the bill offers a promising roadmap for Vilsack to follow at the USDA. He should fold many of its provisions into the next Farm Bill, which will be written and passed in the next two years.

To start with, there are some measures that would cost very little but could go a long way to ending harmful policies at the USDA, such as creating an oversight commission to identify and correct discrimination at the agency.

Vilsack should also implement the provision in the legislation that calls for improving data on Black land loss. For the past two decades, the USDA has failed to conduct the part of the Agricultural Census that tracks the demographics of ownership trends. Vilsack should reinstate this survey while also seeing to the aggregation of historical federal Census and county data on land ownership and sales.

The information is crucial to identifying families who unjustly lost their land over the past century. It could then serve as the basis for a large-scale land-grant program like the one proposed in the Justice Act, while providing needed loans, training and support.

Another thorny issue tackled by the bill is “heirs’ property” — land that's been passed down through families without a clear title, will, or estate plan and often without a USDA farm number. Less than a quarter of Black farmers have wills or estate plans, mainly because they lack access to affordable legal services. Well over half of Black-owned farmland is heirs’ property.

“Without succession plans, Black farmers have been vulnerable to fire sales of their property that have stripped their families of generational  wealth,” Thomas Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M University who worked on the Justice act, told me. Even though the land is taxed, it's rarely been eligible for government loans or other USDA support programs such as crop insurance and disaster relief, increasing the chances of forced tax sales, partition sales or foreclosure. Mitchell is part of a research team that has estimated the total cost of Black land loss to be at least $350 billion.

A pilot program was established in 2018 to allow heirs' property to more easily obtain farm numbers so they can participate in USDA programs and receive subsidized legal services for wills and estate plans. But under the Trump administration, few loans were ever granted or benefits distributed. The program could now be fortified by rolling it into the next Farm Bill, and expanded to $50 million from $5 million of annual funding, as in the proposed legislation.

The USDA has a moral obligation not just to end discrimination but to redress it. Historical context here is crucial: In the final months of the Civil War, Union Army General William T. Sherman attempted to provide reparations to former slaves on behalf of the U.S. government by providing 40 acres for each freed family.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reneged on the promise and returned the land to its former Confederate owners. From then on, freed men and women had to overcome long odds to buy farmland without governmental help.

As Malcolm X made clear, property ownership is a tangible expression of independence. As Black land holdings declined in the 20th century, the losses stole solvency and political power, along with a sense of community, home and belonging.

If the Biden administration is committed to racial equity in the U.S., land restoration must be part of its strategy. While a work in progress, the Justice for Black Farmers Act defines the conversation we should be having now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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