If there is one group of Americans in agriculture who deserve to be taken care of, it’s the nation’s Black farmers. But just as this group was poised to receive desperately needed relief, Texas Republican Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller challenged the law, blocking the farmers from the money they were rightfully due.
Tucked into President Joe Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, a provision that includes $5 billion for “socially disadvantaged farmers of color.” It includes Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian American farmers, and $4 billion would go toward covering up to 120% of outstanding debt, with $1 billion designated for outreach, training, education, technical assistance, and grants.
The money has the potential to begin to right the wrongs of over a century of abuse of Black farmers by the government and a plethora of corrupt, biased agencies.
In April, Miller—along with several other white litigants—told The Texas Tribune that the program is “facially illegal and constitutionally impermissible.” He added: “Such a course will lead only to disunity and discord.”
“Shame on the Biden Administration for authorizing a program it knows was unambiguously illegal, instead of enacting a proper relief bill that complies with the laws and constitution of the United States.”
Miller is just one person among countless bodies of racist organizations that have kept their feet on the necks of Black farmers for generations. Black farmers have lost over 12 million acres of farmland since the 1950s thanks to systemic racism and exclusionary practices by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—even more recently when former President Donald Trump doled out nearly all of the $28 billion designed to offset the trade war with China to exclusively white farmers.
According to the USDA, the number of Black farmers had plummeted from 925,000 in 1920 to about 18,500 by 1997. And the USDA has unrelentingly denied Black farmers loans. CNN reports that in 2021, the USDA rejected 42% of loan applications for Black farmers and only 9% for white farmers.
“It’s common knowledge that white ranchers have access to credit that Black ranchers don’t have,” Brandon Smith, a Black rancher, said in a declaration submitted to the court. “That’s the way it’s always been.”
Smith applied for a motion to intervene in Miller’s lawsuits via the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Igalious “Ike” Mills is a Black farmer in Nacogdoches and director of the Texas Agriforestry Small Farmers and Ranchers. He says Miller’s suit has destroyed what crumb of trust Black farmers had in any government programs claiming to help them.
The lawsuit is “like a slap in the face for Black farmers,” he told The Texas Tribune.
The money from Biden’s farm program would have gone a long way toward repairing historic wrongs that date back to America’s legalization of using enslaved people to build its economy and line the pockets of white slaveholders for generations.
“There is a long history of racism at USDA. It’s a lot to unpack,” USDA Press Secretary Kate Waters told the Tribune. “We’re on the case and we’re here to regain trust.”
But the fact that Miller can halt a program is evidence of how far this country has to go before equity is established.
“We’ve always been denied access,” Miller said. “Even when they made laws to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule and then they took that back.”
Miller’s suit is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who in the past has ruled against vital Obamacare provisions and transgender children’s rights to use the bathroom reflecting their identity, making him a darling of the Texas right wing. Even the hateful, xenophobic, racist, revolting Stephen Miller has become involved, sponsoring support via America First Legal, the group he founded.
In light of the lawsuit, Biden has attempted to go around the COVID relief bill and add money for farmers via the Build Back Better Act, which would give money based on need versus race. The problem is that wouldn’t give them the much-needed debt relief, because that would only apply to farmers who’ve lost loans via the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which doesn’t include most Black farmers because they can't get FSA loans, only private loans.
"If Black farmers don’t get this debt relief that they’ve been promised, it’s almost like a contract that’s being broken,” Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which represents Black farmers, told Reuters.