Home Farming Panel Investigates USDA’s ‘Systemic’ Discrimination Against Black Farmers
WASHINGTON – The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday gathered testimony about decades of racial discrimination faced by black farmers in their dealings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Committee chair Representative David Scott, (D-Ga.), Said testimony at the virtual hearing would help the group craft legislation to increase the number of black farmers, as well as expand the land owned by these farmers and to help provide economic relief.
“This systemic discrimination continues to be felt by black farmers today, who are still at a disadvantage in USDA programs,” Scott said in his opening remarks. “This festering wound on the soul of American agriculture must be healed.”
Lawmakers asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who appeared as a witness, about how the agency is helping black farmers get loans, as well as how it is combating the discrimination and provides economic assistance.
“The history of systemic discrimination against black farmers has been well documented,” said Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, in his opening remarks. “Despite all that has been done, there is clearly more to be done to deepen our efforts.”
Vilsack pointed out that only 0.1% of black farmers received any of the $ 26 billion in economic aid allocated to farmers under a Trump administration’s USDA program that used funds from a COVID-19 bill and other sources. Of that portion, only $ 20.8 million went to black farmers.
Vilsack, who was previously secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration, has aroused anger and skepticism from black farmers after his appointment. These black farmers argued that during his tenure he failed to adequately tackle racial discrimination and failed to provide economic relief to black producers.
His decision to falsely fire civil rights icon and longtime black farmer advocate Shirley Sherrod of Georgia was also a sticking point. Vilsack forced her to quit the USDA after a right-wing publication edited a speech Sherrod gave to make it look like she was prejudiced against a white farmer. When the full video surfaced, it showed that Sherrod actually helped the farmer.
Sherrod was also a witness at the hearing, and she pointed out that in order for Congress to correct the decades of racism that black farmers face, lawmakers are going to have to be transparent about their methods and work to include these farmers in policies. from the USDA. She currently works as the Executive Director of the Southwest Georgia Project, which is led by civil rights leaders to help provide education and assistance to grassroots organizations.
“There are so many barriers now because people have been kept away from the agency, so you have to make them feel that they can come back for help,” she said. declared.
During the hearing, Vilsack admitted there was racial discrimination within the agency and vowed to do better. He was not asked to talk about Sherrod’s dismissal.
He added that the USDA is currently working to ensure that black farmers have access to the nearly $ 10 billion in economic aid earmarked for them in the US bailout that President Joe Biden promulgated further. early this month. The money set aside for black farmers is intended to help with loan cancellation.
John Boyd, of Baskerville, Va., And the president of the National Black Farmers Association, said it was nearly impossible for black farmers to stay in business when they were routinely denied loans or received government grants. , compared to white farmers.
“I cannot compete,” he said at the hearing. “Right now we are threatened with extinction and our farmers are suffering and they are looking for answers and they are looking for a next step.”
In 1920 there were nearly a million black farmers which worked on 41.4 million acres of land, making up about 7 percent of the agricultural landscape. Today there are approximately 50,000 black farmers working on 4.7 million acres of land, making it 1.4 percent of the country’s farmers. White farmers make up 98 percent of rural farmers.
GOP members oppose funds for black farmers
Republican representatives on the committee, Austin Scott of Georgia and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, raised objections about the money set aside for black farmers in the US bailout, arguing that the allocation of money to a certain group of people was discriminatory.
“My concern is that when we start to group some people together because of the color of their skin, then it becomes more difficult to do anything,” Scott said. “I think there are a lot of people who need help.”
DesJarlais agreed and said that farmers of different races, genders and religions are also discriminated against and that it would not be fair to leave these groups out.
“It’s the job of the courts to rule on discrimination and award damages, not Congress,” DesJarlais said.
Rep. Alma Adams, (DN.C.), said the 1995 Supreme Court Adarand Constructors, Inc. v Peña decision “Has argued that the government can use race-based remedies that are narrowly tailored to address the practice and effects of racial discrimination.”
The Justice Department issued a memo stating that Congress “may be entitled to deference when acting on the basis of race to remedy the effects of discrimination,” Adams said.
“This is what we have in the US bailout,” she said. “Congress is tightly tailoring legislation to address well-documented racial discrimination against farmers of color.”
Senior committee member Rep. Glenn Thompson, (R-Penn.), Said that as the committee works to create legislation to help black farmers, it is also important to look at how to fix it. the discrimination these farmers suffered at the USDA.
“Paying back the loans of socially disadvantaged farmers may help in the short term, but it does little to address the root cause of this problem,” he said. “This certainly does not prevent the racial exclusion of black farmers or any other socially disadvantaged group in the future.”