The USDA Stumbles as it Attempts to Address Historic Racism

by Ryan Nebeker

Published: 2/17/22, Last updated: 2/17/22

In March 2021, moving on campaign promises to resolve the US Department of Agriculture’s history of discrimination and eager to prove that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s second tenure as head of the agency would be different from his first,  President Joe Biden’s administration marked $4 billion worth of stimulus money towards debt relief for Black farmers. Given the economic disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the relief seemed poised to help Black farmers when they needed it the most, and advocates praised the move as a first step in the right direction. 

But the payments still haven’t materialized. And while the agency tries to find workarounds, Black farmers remain deeply mistrustful of the agency and skeptical of the administration’s attempts to correct previous failures. 

History of Discrimination Against Black Farmers 

The USDA has a documented history of discrimination against Black farmers since its formation, denying them loans, subsidy payments and other assistance. That lack of aid caused the number of Black-owned farms to plummet over the 20th century. In 1920, 14 percent of US farmers were Black, but by 2017, that number had shrunk to under two percent

There have been numerous attempts by the agency to correct the its history of discrimination, including establishing its own Office of Civil Rights in 1965. But the agency’s repeated failure to make progress in recent years continues to disappoint activists and fail Black farmers, who are missing out on much-needed support. Despite promises to change the department, the Biden Administration is still struggling to change the agency’s course. 

Vilsack first led the department under former President Barack Obama, during which time he declared the administration’s priority on ending the department’s legacy of discrimination against Black farmers. Per reports published by the USDA, the agency was succeeding: financial settlements to Black farmers were on the rise and Black farmers were thriving and multiplying. 

But those statistics were misleading, and the claims didn’t hold up under scrutiny: a deeper investigation found that Vilsack’s department escalated foreclosures against Black farmers and failed to act on discrimination complaints. Worse still, Black staffers reported an actively hostile environment at the agency.

In one notable case, the narrative that Black farmers were doing well actually made things worse: when the USDA attempted to settle one loan discrimination case, called Pigford II, white conservative activists complained Black farmers were getting an unfair handout. Black farmers reported resentment and discrimination from white farmers and local USDA officials in the aftermath. 

While Obama-era policy was largely a disappointment to Black farmers, former President Donald Trump’s era was worse. One investigation showed that  work at the agency’s civil rights office ground to a near halt by 2019, taking an average of 799 days to process discrimination complaints. Many saw  Biden’s election as a chance to bring some change and accountability to the agency. Activists were hopeful the next secretary might be Black, and with longtime House Agriculture Committee member Marcia Fudge as a candidate, that seemed possible. Instead,  many Black farmers were shocked and upset when Biden nominated Vilsack to return as secretary. And while some of Vilsack’s early steps at the department were initially quite promising, the USDA has once again left Black farmers in the lurch in a way that mirrors some of its earlier failings. 

Stalled Attempts at Debt Relief 

The Biden administration’s announcement of targeted debt relief seemed like a promising step towards correcting the department’s legacy. And with so many Black farmers in financial trouble stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a timely and necessary move. But this plan immediately hit roadblocks. First, banks complained that immediate repayment would cut into the lucrative interest payments they were earning from accumulated farmer debt. Conservative, primarily white forces, emboldened by national debates about critical race theory, stoked outrage that Black farmers were once again receiving a handout. Political operatives organized white farmers who filed suits alleging that the program was discriminatory against them, stalling the payments in court before any Black farmers received a check. 

The USDA is still fighting to get the original program going, but it will have to fight several cases, including one filed privately by the Texas agriculture commissioner. With the suits stretching well into the spring, it’s clear the program will be tied up for the foreseeable future, amounting to a successful bid to ground it. After a year of no relief, many Black-owned farms are in “survival mode,” and for some would-be recipients, it’s already too late to avoid foreclosure. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers have tried to implement workarounds through the Build Back Better bill. But in order to evade lawsuits alleging racial discrimination, the new proposal would reward loan forgiveness based on income, and limit qualifying loans to those that came from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency directly rather than from private lenders. That means that about 15 percent of the original target group would be ineligible for relief. Black farm groups say the changes undermine trust in the administration and in the USDA. Even with these limitations, the fact that the proposal is part of a stalled spending bill means that it’s unclear when it could even be implemented. 

But even as the USDA continues to push for some form of debt relief package, it’s not clear that the agency has changed the underlying system that resulted in so much historic discrimination: one investigation found that loan rejection rates for Black farmers have gone up dramatically since 2019, even as the new administration declared its own progress. While the USDA only denied nine percent of loan applications from white farmers in 2021, the agency denied 42 percent of applications from Black farmers. Denial rates for Asian farmers didn’t trail far behind. 

Looking Ahead 

It’s clear the agency needs to work much more proactively to rebuild its relationships with Black farmers and other farmers of color. Vilsack has touted the creation of a new Equity Commission for the agency, mandated by the 2021 stimulus package, as one potential solution. The 15-member committee is tasked with finding ways to rectify discriminatory policies within the agency, and while an interim report with recommendations is expected this year, many advocates for disadvantaged farmers aren’t convinced it’s enough. As one farmer expressed, “We don’t need any more reports. Black farmers need debt relief.” 

With that relief in limbo and an uncertain future with the USDA, Black farmers are working hard to preserve their livelihoods on their own. Even before the rise and fall of Biden’s debt relief package, Black farmers were organizing to help protect Black land ownership through debt-relief collectives, for example. Collective groups of Black farmers are also pooling resources to buy and rent farmland in both rural and urban areas, bringing much needed fresh food into their communities. And despite ongoing challenges, new Black farmers are still setting up agricultural communities in areas like West Virginia, creating job opportunities for people in areas formerly dominated by the coal industry.

Top photo by Anson Eaglin/ USDA

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