The Washington Post

By Laura Riley

March 8, 2021

A little-known element of President Biden’s massive stimulus relief package would pay billions of dollars to disadvantaged farmers — benefiting Black farmers in a way that some experts say no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Of the $10.4 billion in the American Rescue Plan that will support agriculture, approximately half would go to disadvantaged farmers, according to estimates from the Farm Bureau, an industry organization. About a quarter of disadvantaged farmers are Black. The money would provide debt relief as well as grants, training, education and other forms of assistance aimed at acquiring land.

While it’s a fraction of the $1.9 trillion bill that passed in the Senate on Saturday, advocates say it still represents a step toward righting a wrong after a century of mistreatment of Black farmers by the government and others. Some say it is a form of reparations for African Americans who have suffered a long history of racial oppression.

“This is the most significant piece of legislation with respect to the arc of Black land ownership in this country,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, which provides legal representation to Black farmers.

Black farmers in America have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, mostly since the 1950s, a result of what agricultural experts and advocates for Black farmers say is a combination of systemic racism, biased government policy, and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.

Discrimination started a century ago with a series of federal Homestead Acts that offered mainly White settlers deeply subsidized land. Since then, local U.S. Department of Agriculture offices charged with distributing loans have frequently been found to deny Black farmers access to credit and to ignore or delay loan applications. Many Black farmers don’t have clear title to their land, which makes them ineligible for certain USDA loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting, and they have seldom benefited from subsidy payments or trade mitigation compensation — almost all of President Donald Trump’s $28 billion bailout for those affected by the China trade war went to White farmers.

Today, the average farm operated by an African American is about 100 acres, compared with the national average of about 440 acres, according to the last farm census. The Center for American Progress found that in 2017, the average full-time White farmer brought in $17,190 in farm income, while the average full-time Black farmer made just $2,408.

Many civil rights advocates say the USDA’s own practices have resulted in the loss of land and generational wealth for Black families.

“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Saturday. “On top of the economic pain caused by the pandemic, farmers from socially disadvantaged communities are dealing with a disproportionate share of Covid-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, death and economic hurt.”

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Of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States today, only 45,000 are Black, according to the USDA, down from 1 million a century ago. Black farmland ownership peaked in 1910 at 16 to 19 million acres, about 14 percent of total agricultural land, according to the Census of Agriculture. A century later, 90 percent of that land had been lost. White farmers now account for 98 percent of the acres, according to USDA data.

“It does my heart good to know that my 91-year-old father is alive to see what he’s been trying to accomplish for the last 30 years come to fruition,” said Abraham Carpenter, a Black farmer from Grady, Ark. He said this debt relief represents a lifelong dream for many Black farmers.

“We have been held hostage by the USDA for so many years,” he said. “Most people don’t realize how it feels to be mistreated. They don’t know what it feels like to be placed in a position where you cannot help yourself or your family.”

McCurty and others have used the word “reparations,” a term for financial restitution to the descendants of enslaved people, when speaking of these efforts to erase Black farmers’ debt and provide access to land. Democrats have increasingly called in recent years for payments or other compensation to African Americans for the long-term effects of slavery and segregation.

“It’s reparations, but it’s more than that. It is historic,” McCurty said. “When Black farmers did acquire land through our own grit and determination, the USDA did what they could to erode those gains. Once again, Black farmers, because of their dedication to organizing, have created liberation for farmers of color. Our farmers are due a field of flowers, not a bouquet, for the sorrow they’ve carried.”

But others, while acknowledging that the payments would be highly significant, say they do not constitute reparations.

William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University who has studied reparations extensively, says that a $5 billion allocation is a “pittance,” at most 2 percent of the lost wealth, and that it does not constitute reparations.