The number of black farmers in America peaked in 1920, when there were 949,889. Today, of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers, only 1.3%, or 45,508, are black, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture in 2019. By comparison, 95% of US farmers are white.
By Dr. Waymon Hinson
We have come a long way from there to here and we have actually gone nowhere. It’s like we are running in place, or maybe stuck in quick sand. Listening in on blog talk radio with Lawrence Lucas, Ramsess, Michael Stovall, Carolyn Jones, and Frank Taylor reminded me of how far we’ve not come the last 100 years plus and the obstacles the USDA puts in our way.
Early on, complaints had been filed for decades to the USDA Office of Civil Rights, but to no avail. Sadly enough, President Reagan essentially closed down this office in 1981, and the complaints were just tossed into the garbage can or at best, filed or maybe mis-filed, in an out of the way office there in USDA. Former Ag Secretary Michael Espy confirmed this in an interview with him.
During the late ’90s, 15 Black farmers settled their cases with the USDA/DOJ. They received compensation for their injuries, debt write-off, and promises of priority services including eligibility for future services. The documentary done by Shoun Hill and Waymon Hinson chronicles those stories, of 9 of those 15 Black farmers along with other key persons. The settlements were very uneven, all, in my opinion, due to the meddling of the Office of General Counsel.
My opinion is that the USDA and DOJ realized that serious allegations from Black farmers were coming, so a combination of events and people resulted in another debacle called the Pigford Class Action Suit. Unfortunately, the attorneys waived discovery which led to more pain and suffering. In short, 22,551 applied for Track A and 15,645 prevailed. They received $50K and promises of debt relief. At the end of the day, only 371 actually received debt relief. It was a bad deal for Black farmers who just wanted to farm and to hold on to their land. Large numbers of Black farmers lost their farms, their families, and their health. Many have passed on to the ancestors. We know many of them. With each death, we are sucker-punched. Some filed under Track B, and a few prevailed there. Then, later, Pigford II was opened, and, again, a few prevailed there, but not many. Who actually got the money from those two class action suits? The attorneys, but that’s a story for another day.
For a summary of these events, check out what I wrote back in 2018. More details are found there.
Our efforts since then have been consistently oriented toward justice for this group of Black farmers. We have not hesitated one iota.
When Senator Warren declared in 2018 that Black land loss was a function of heirs property, that Black people did not have clear titles to their land, had not paid their taxes, and other matters, we protested directly to her. We respectfully declared that the USDA was the culprit in Black land loss. She and her team believed us. As she was a candidate for the presidency, she spelled out a strong policy for Black farmers.
Although she was not elected, she continued to advocate for Black farmers. Along with other senators, she crafted the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2020, knowing that under President Trump, it would not see the light of day, and that it would be resubmitted to congress the first year after his presidency ended.
The Justice for Black Farmers Group was formed.
And Booker, Warren, Warnock, and others worked on it. But it never was passed into law.
Instead, various features of the Bill were moved into the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 with the assistance of Senator Warnock. Within that bill was debt relief for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers to the tune of 120%. Here is that text: “The Secretary shall provide a payment in an amount up to 120 percent of the outstanding indebtedness of each socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher as of January 1, 2021, to pay off the loan directly or to the socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher (or a combination of both), on each” direct loans or guaranteed loans.
We have accused Secretary Tom Vilsack of slow-walking implementation procedures which allowed 12 class action suits of white farmers across the country to scream out “reverse discrimination.” This article lines out the key dates from Warnock’s introduction of the Emergency Relief Act on March 3, 2021 up until the first judge issued a restraining order on June 10, 2021. Given that we live in the computer age and that the USDA has an internal system that covers all relevant information on farmers of all colors, it is apparent that Vilsack’s dallying at the door allowed these white farmers enough time to gather up their attorneys, one of whom had worked in the Trump White House and was in charge of developing his immigration policies. While they hollered out “reverse discrimination,” a perusal of the USDA data for subsidies and other benefits for farmers and ranchers, shows that the first six litigants were not only NOT discriminated against, they were huge beneficiaries of the USDA’s generosity in terms of subsidies, coronavirus relief funds, and Trump’s failed tariff war with China. The numbers are quite staggering both for the farmers and ranchers themselves and the counties within which they are located.
After the USDA opted not to fight these lawsuits aggressively in court, other lawsuits were filed included a couple by the Cowtown Foundation out of Tennessee. Those are still lingering in the judge’s chambers apparently.
Also, the Senate got busy under the leadership of Booker, Warnock, and others, and submitted pieces within the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. This time around, apparently in an effort to thwart the efforts of attorneys and folks from the previous Bill, the language was changed to “distressed” borrowers. The criteria for “distressed” was left to the discretion of Secretary Vilsack. $3.1B were allocated for this group of farmers and ranchers. Additionally, $2.2B were allocated to compensate for discriminatory actions on the part of USDA if that could be proven. It can without a doubt.
What is missing from this piece of legislation just as it was in the previous legislation is that of tax burdens. If a farmer/rancher receives “payments,” not debt cancellation or forgiveness, an important distinction, the principle would be taxable, but not the interest. That means that these folks would be receiving 1099s from the IRS, which could set them back even further than they would have.
At this point, we understand that the USDA has provided $800M in payments o 11,000 borrowers, and that step-by-step processes are being initiated for 1,600 borrowers whose cases are more “complicated.”
We have evidence that there are approximately 3,000 Black farmers who are currently indebted to the USDA. We have evidence that the total indebtedness is approximately $210M.
Our network is nation-wide, and at this point, we know of only seven, yes, SEVEN, Black farmers have received “payments” either partially or completely wiping out their debt. There seems to be no particular rhyme or reason as one has received “payments” of $1.4M and another $200K.
We are waiting for the Secretary to inform us as to how the $2.2B for discrimination will be managed. He is obligated by law to appointment one or more non-governmental entities to manage these processes.
Secretary Vilsack is obligated by law to disburse $3.3B to “distressed” farmers regardless of color of skin. We have not evidence that he is doing that for Black farmers. He is obligated by law to designate one or more entities to manage the complications of disbursing $2.2B to those farmers discriminated against.
Black farmers are tired of waiting. They are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
More on this later, but the Congressional Black Caucus speaks loudly by their silence despite having a variety of means of speaking up for Black farmers.
If you want to hear first hand what the USDA does to Black farmers, scroll down to the bottom of this web page until you see the gentleman in the cotton field. Hit play and for the next 2:30 minutes or so, you’ll hear agonizing stories of what it means to farm while Black in America. This is the trailer for the documentary, “I’m Just a Layman in Pursuit of Justice: Black Farmers Fight Against the USDA.”
There is much, much more to this soul wrenching, gut wrenching saga. I just wanted you to be able to read a summary.
In the meantime, what is the Justice for Black Farmers Group doing? Good question. Go to this web page of Acres of Ancestry and to the community archives and you’ll find a substantial group of letters under the signature of Lawrence Lucas, President Emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and Representative, Justice for Black Farmers Group. They are addressed to Secretary Vilsack and to President Biden. You will also find documents to and from other congressional folks.
This letter in the community archives to President Biden contains a lot of links and resources and is a good summary of our efforts and demands.
What are we doing? We are knocking on the White House door, demanding attention from the President. Be sure to see the political satire that we include in this letter. It will move your heart.
We know that his office will forward our correspondence to USDA, which means that we are knocking on the door of Secretary Vilsack. We are demanding justice for Black farmers. We want him gone from USDA. Sooner rather than later is preferred.
We will not be deterred. This is a righteous cause. We will not be deterred.
Dr. Waymon Hinson is a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist, a researcher, and an advocate in matters related to social justice. Click here to view his blog “Let Justice Ring.”
“I’m Just a Layman in Pursuit of Justice: Black Farmers Fight Against USDA ,” written and directed by Shoun A. Hill and Dr. Waymon Hinson, has been shown on our site. The trailer highlights some of the stories of injustices that these farmers experienced at the hands of the USDA and FSA.