The plight of Black farmers across the United States is a well-documented and long-running scandalous tale. Nonetheless, in Natalie Baszile’s latest book, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, she writes “Black farmers emerge as ingenious, creative, energetic, business-savvy and environmentally astute. Overwhelmingly, they are community-minded owners and stewards of the land.” But their lot hasn’t been an easy one.
For over well over a century, going back to the end of the Civil War when General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which called for formerly enslaved households to be granted forty acres and a mule, racist Whites have been consistently opposed to Black ownership of land. Indeed, if Lincoln had not been assassinated, allowing Andrew Johnson to assume the presidency and rescind Field Order No. 15, our nation would, in all likelihood, not have the large and persistent black underclass we see today since there would have been generational wealth — in the form of land — to pass down within Black families.
Instead, according to Baszile’s research, only 5% of Black farmers — or 45,500 — remain in the U.S. (down from 925,798 a century ago) and they own a mere 2% of arable American farmland, just 4.7 million acres. And the majority of them are struggling due to the racist policies of the federal government.
The Biden Administration, however, has taken note of how unfairly Black (and other farmers of color) have historically been treated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and has passed legislation to rectify the ill treatment. As part of the COVID-19 stimulus plan, $4 billion has been set aside to forgive loans for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who are Black, American Indian, Hispanic, Alaskan native, Asian American or Pacific Islander.
Nonetheless, a group of White midwestern farmers have sued the federal government alleging they can’t participate in a COVID-19 loan forgiveness program because they’re White, even though they have not been historically disadvantaged. The group of White plaintiffs includes farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio. According to the lawsuit, the Biden administration’s focus on the needs of minority farmers’ amounts to a violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, the lawsuit contends.
“Were plaintiffs eligible for the loan forgiveness benefit, they would have the opportunity to make additional investments in their property, expand their farms, purchase equipment and supplies and otherwise support their families and local communities,” the lawsuit said. “Because plaintiffs are ineligible to even apply for the program solely due to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm.”
The USDA has issued a statement saying it was reviewing the lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice, but the agency plans to continue to offer loan forgiveness to historically “socially disadvantaged” farmers. It’s about damn time.
Given the history of how badly Black farmers have been treated over the decades by the USDA, we can only hope the courts will realize the purpose of this lawsuit: It’s designed to maintain the status quo and assure the advantage White farmers have historically had continues far into the future. The last thing they want is to level the playing field for farmers of color.
We can only hope and pray that justice finally prevails.