How Claims of Reverse Racism Put Black Farmers’ Futures at Risk and Why That Matters for Economic Justice

  • Essential Common Future

Sep 21, 2021 Common Future

The American Rescue Plan was supposed to help Black farmers. $4 billion of the pandemic recovery fund signed into law in March was set aside for debt forgiveness to “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” in recognition of over a century of racist divestment and predatory practices by banks, suppliers and governments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture promised to pay up to 120% of qualified farmers’ debt.

That money is now in jeopardy. White farmers claiming reverse discrimination have filed at least thirteen lawsuits challenging the legality of allocating funding based on race. In June, a federal judge in Florida ruled in favor of a white farmer named Scott Wynn, who claimed that it was a violation of his equal-protection rights to be denied relief from his coronavirus-related farm debt.

According to the Washington Post, farmers of color received less than 1% of the $9.7 billion Congress already set aside for agricultural pandemic relief. By the end of May, 11% of white farmers were behind on government loans, compared with 37.9% of Black borrowers, 14.6% of Asian borrowers, 17.4% of Indigenous borrowers and 68% of Latino borrowers.

An earlier ruling on a similar case in Wisconsin had already put the program on hold. The ruling in Florida placed it under a nationwide injunction. The judge, Marcia Morales Howard, wrote that “in adopting Section 1005’s strict race-based debt relief remedy Congress moved with great speed to address the history of discrimination, but did not move with great care,” adding that it was unfair that “a small white farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief.” With the program still on hold, several progressive federal representatives are trying to bring immediate relief through the budget reconciliation process.

Common Future supports leaders and organizations committed to community wealth building which often includes food and farm ownership and access. To that end, we asked two of our staff members for their perspective on what it means for their work, and the broader work of racial and economic justice.

Rakiba Kibria, Director of Advancement

What’s your initial reaction to this news?

It’s upsetting that white farmers and federal judges that are conservatively appointed are coming forward to say, “Hey, we feel left out,” because Black farmers have been systemically left out since Emancipation. All the benefits that farmers have received — the agricultural adjustment administration, others for crop allotment, for access to credit, access to loans, for connecting farmers to resources and insurance — all of those have disproportionately benefited white farmers. Black farmers have always been the ones that put up their own cash, or were just hanging by a thread. During the pandemic, many had to take out personal loans because they didn’t qualify for PPP. And now when one piece of relief comes for them, there are folks that are saying it’s discriminatory against white folks. It’s so disheartening.

How does this relate to your work at Common Future?

I’m focused on fundraising here, and philanthropy acts as a fourth sector in remedying or filling in the gaps that the public and private sectors don’t. But in this aspect — food, agriculture, farmland and debt forgiveness — philanthropy shouldn’t, and can’t possibly, do everything that the USDA and the US government can. Development professionals like me can be the agitators for policy to move the needle on these issues. But if this loan forgiveness program isn’t put into effect, it’ll be disastrous, because we can in no way fundraise to fill that gap. We can’t be a shadow USDA or local government. These duties and responsibilities really fall on policies and the interconnected infrastructure that the USDA already has. Nonprofits like ours that work strongly and directly with farmers can only do so much.

Is agriculture something that you bring up often in your fundraising work?

Not in a lot of detail, but absolutely in how it relates back to the racial wealth gap, which pervades land, agriculture, food justice and food sovereignty. I’m thinking in particular of Jennie Stephens of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation, which is part of the Common Future network, whose work I always want to uplift in conversations about the racial wealth gap and Black land ownership. But again, private dollars and investment can never match what local and federal policy can do.

Walter Alarkon, Orrick Racial Justice Legal Fellow

What’s your perspective on this case as a lawyer who’s researched anti-discrimination finance for Common Future?

What we’re seeing is that a court has used existing anti-discrimination laws to strike down a bill that tries to remedy racial injustices by specifically calling them out. My worry is that courts will do the same thing for future anti-discrimination lending laws. The original intent of these laws was the opposite, of course. It was about leveling the playing field for people of color.

With right-leaning judges in the lower federal courts willing to strike down legislative remedies involving payments that also account for race, there’s a strong chance that appellate courts, including the current Supreme Court, will uphold those rulings. I’m concerned that the courts might go beyond even that, and start going after existing laws and programs like affirmative action. Those programs are written to comply with anti-discrimination laws as they have been written and interpreted up to this point. But if courts all of a sudden start interpreting them in a different way, the existing programs could face greater legal scrutiny.

Those are big concerns. Do you see the possibility for something else to happen?

I see some hope in one bill proposed by Sens. Cory Booker, Raphael Warnock and Kirsten Gillibrand that pairs financial support to all low-income farmers with systemic racial equity reforms to the USDA, such as creation of an independent civil rights oversight board. For the financial support, they’re using income as a criteria, not race. It’s not directly targeting structural racism, but it still provides resources to farmers of color because they are disproportionately low-income. This approach would be more likely to survive legal challenges if enacted.

And in the big picture, I do see that legislators and policymakers at large are recognizing that we need more financing to address these problems. It’s obvious to say this, but they are not going to go away, especially as we start to face the impacts of climate change. It will be helpful to have charitable entities step in, but at the end of the day, public resources can just bring so much more to the table.

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