Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says U.S. needs to address ‘cumulative’ bias against Black farmers


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday the administration will press ahead with plans to aid Black farmers for the “cumulative effect” of past discrimination by Washington, brushing aside a lawsuit by White farmers alleging discrimination because they are not eligible for a COVID-19 loan forgiveness program for disadvantaged producers.

Mr. Vilsack said White farmers “did pretty well” under pandemic relief programs prior to the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March. But he said “socially disadvantaged” farmers need more help due to decades of discrimination.

“You have to go back 20, 30 years, when we know for a fact that socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture — we know this,” Mr. Vilsack told reporters at the White House. “We have reimbursed people in the past for those acts of discrimination, but we’ve never absolutely dealt with the cumulative effect.”

A group of White Midwestern farmers sued the federal government last week, alleging discrimination because they are not eligible for a loan forgiveness program in the new rescue plan. The administration will allocate about $4 billion to disadvantaged farmers, about a quarter of whom are Black.

The White farmers, from states including Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio, say in the lawsuit that the administration is violating their constitutional rights by barring them from applying for the disadvantaged farmers’ fund. The suit seeks to stop the Department of Agriculture from using race to guide eligibility for “loan modifications and payments.”

“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 lawsuit states.

Mr. Vilsack, who served eight years as Agriculture secretary under President Obama, said the Agriculture Department “is going to move forward” with the effort despite the litigation.

“I think there is a very legitimate reason for doing what we are doing,” he said.

He said the relief package provided for the creation of an “equity commission” to examine possible “systemic barriers that need to be removed at the department,” and to review steps to create “better technical assistance, better access to land, better access to markets for socially disadvantaged producers.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, likened the plan to “reparations” for Black farmers.

“If you’re a White person, if you are a White woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations,” Mr. Graham said on Fox News.

Mr. Vilsack said the “cumulative effect” of decades of bias has held back some farmers from succeeding.

“When I have the full advantage of all the USDA programs throughout the last 30 years, my operation could grow,” he said. “I could invest in more land, I could get the latest and best technology, I could plant my crop in just the right time. I could make more money. If I had limited access or no access to USDA programs, obviously, my operation [was] significantly limited. So the American Rescue Plan’s effort is to begin addressing the cumulative effect of that discrimination, in terms of socially disadvantaged producers.”

Under the Trump administration in 2020, less than 2% of direct loans went to Black farmers.

Many civil rights advocates say the federal government’s farm loan practices and other agricultural policies in the past century resulted in loss of land and wealth for Black farming families. The liberal Center for American Progress said in 2017 that the average White farmer had $17,190 in farm income, while the average full-time Black farmer made just $2,408.

The Agriculture Department settled class-action lawsuits by Black farmers in 1999 and 2010, but advocates said much of the money never reached the farmers. 

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