The Democrats behind this month’s historic debt-relief package for Black farmers have a message for Washington: They’re just getting started.
“Systemic discrimination continues to be felt by Black farmers,” House Agriculture Chairman David Scott said Thursday to open a hearing on the history of racism in the US agriculture sector. “This festering wound on the soul of American agriculture must be healed.”
Scott, who became the panel’s first-ever Black chairman late last year, was one of several Democrats who helped secure a total of $5 billion for historically disadvantaged farmers—$4 billion in debt relief and another $1 billion in other aid—in the $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief bill. President Joe Biden signed that bill into law just two weeks ago, but Scott says he’s already working on follow-up legislation. Among the chairman’s goals: increasing the number of Black farmers, the size of their farms and the market share of the food and fiber they produce. “We’re going to have some incentives in there so that we can increase [those],” Scott said. Translation: More federal cash will be devoted to the effort—likely a lot more.
The Georgia Democrat isn’t alone in that thinking either. Across the Capitol, a trio of powerful senators is making similar promises. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have all said that they see the debt relief as the beginning, not the end, of their efforts to address systemic racism in the agriculture sector.
“This is only a first step,” Booker said Monday at a virtual press conference to celebrate the COVID-19 aid for Black farmers. “We must provide more access to credit and land for these farmers who have suffered this long history of wretched and painful discrimination.” Added Warren: “This relief package marks our first victory for Black farmers but not our last.”
Last month, Booker and Warnock became just the second- and third-ever Black members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. It didn’t take long for them to make their presence on the panel known. The $4 billion in debt relief for Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and disadvantaged farmers of color in the bill was based on Warnock’s Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, and it also drew inspiration from Booker’s more ambitious Justice for Black Farmers Act. The USDA estimates that the funds will be enough to forgive the outstanding federal loans of upwards of 13,000 farmers.
Meanwhile, among other things, Booker’s bill calls for the federal government to buy up $8 billion in farmland and give it out in 160-acre plots to Black farmers. (The acreage is a not-so-subtle callback to the Civil War-era Homestead Act of 1862 that gave away a total 270 million acres of land in 160-acre chunks, the vast majority of which went to white settlers.) Booker said Monday that he plans to push to get his bill “enacted in law as quickly as possible.”
Regardless of what legislative form it takes—be it Booker’s existing bill, Scott’s work-in-progress or some combination of the two—getting another round of Black farm aid to the president’s desk will be easier said than done given that Democrats hold only the slimmest of majorities in the Senate (where the filibuster lives on—at least for now).
Republicans were united in their opposition to the entire stimulus package—called the American Recovery Act—and likewise fought hard against the targeted aid for Black farmers, declaring it a form of reverse racism against white farmers. Several struck a similar note during Thursday’s hearing. “It’s hard for me to tell [farmers in my district] that help is on the way but only if you’re a certain skin color,” said Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais. “It seems like that’s discrimination in itself.”
Such #AllFarmersMatter arguments, however, ignore the long—and well-documented—history of Black farmers being mistreated by the federal government, both explicit (ahem, slavery) and subtle. Among the more insidious abuses were long-standing discriminatory lending policies at the US Department of Agriculture that denied or delayed their access to credit to Black farmers—making it all but impossible for them to compete in an industry long dominated by a federal “get big or get out” ethos.
The lasting impact of that systemic racism is clear for those willing to look. There are only about 45,000 Black farmers today, more than a million less than there were a century ago. The share of American farmers who are Black, meanwhile, has fallen to just 1.3 percent from 15 percent. The relatively few Black farmers left struggle to compete in the marketplace against larger farm operations. According to a 2019 analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress, the average full-time white farmer made more than seven times as much farm income as the average full-time Black farmer in 2017.
The decrease in Black farmers isn’t enough to explain away why as a group they continue to get only a sliver of the federal aid doled out to white farmers. Consider the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (known as CFAP): Black farmers got just $21 million of the nearly $26 billion given out while the Trump administration was running the show—good for about 0.1 percent of the program—according to figures the USDA made public on Thursday.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has faced a considerable amount of criticism for not doing enough to address racial discrimination at the USDA during his first tour of duty under then-President Barack Obama. It’s still early in his second stint leading the agency, but he’s at least talking the talk this time around. He named addressing systemic racism as one of his top goals during his confirmation hearing and has continued to discuss it publicly while making the rounds on the Washington conference circuit since.
He announced on Wednesday that the next round of CFAP cash would be targeted at a “broader set of producers” than the first two were, including Black and other farmers of color. And, at Thursday’s hearing, he lent his support to the larger effort from congressional Democrats to start to right some of those historical wrongs, and he even had a pair of relatively testy exchanges with GOP lawmakers who took issue with the Black farm aid. (One was with Rep. Rick Allen of Georgia, who asked whether “farmers could say, ‘Hey, I want to change my race and benefit from this program’?”)
Early in the hearing, Vilsack offered a “single and solemn commitment” to the committee. “We will over the next four years do everything we can to root out whatever systemic racism and barriers may exist at the Department of Agriculture,” he promised. For now, that’s just more words. But as Booker, Scott and their allies might say, it’s a start.