Relief for Black Farmers is Past Due

One of the key (and controversial) components of the Coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden this week was a $5.1 Billion plank earmarked to minority farmers that that would provide debt relief and assistance in acquiring new land to farm.

While this multi-billion dollar plank is relatively small when compared to the debt that will be described below, it is at least a good faith step in the right direction. Yet, as with most things in the modern era, what should be a bipartisan goal–seeking equality and redress of past wrongs for Black farmers who have faced discrimination by the Federal government for over 150 years–has drawn the ire of right wing pundits and Republican political leaders who, as the evidence will show in this essay, falsely claim that such earmarks are “reverse discrimination” against white farmers.

I must state from the outset that this issue holds personal significance to me because my maternal immediate ancestors were sharecrop farmers in Camilla, Georgia. Camilla is a small town in the southwest portion of the state whose major historical footnote is that it was the scene of a bloody massacre in 1868, when former Confederate soldiers killed 14 Black men and wounded 40 others who were merely seeking enforcement of equal rights per the recently passed 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

(NY Times snippet about the 1868 Camilla Massacre in Georgia)

About a decade ago, I sat among my maternal elders as one lay dying in the hospital. The issue that evening was that a descendant of the white owner of the farm in which their parents and grandparents worked was mortally ill, too, and wanted to meet with the children that he grew up around–and soon served as the manorial lord over–before meeting his own fate. The youngest of my elders, shielded from much of the horrors of picking cotton in the brutal sun during Jim Crow–only to be cheated out of wages–was eager to meet and see what the man wanted to discuss; she even reckoned aloud that perhaps he wanted to divide up some of the thousands of acres of land that our ancestors had worked. The rest of the elders were STRONGLY opposed to meeting with this man or discussing anything, and I sat at rapt attention upon the realization that these very successful family members sitting among me still held some deep resentment and anger about their experiences during this era.

(Photo of my Great Grandfather Charlie Williams’ World War I Draft Card. Prong #7 lists profession as “farmer”)

My ancestors angst was not in a vacuum; such was the case all across the Deep South and in Midwest states like Indiana, where the social order decreed that the rights of white farmers and landowners superseded those of Black farmers and landowners. These thoughts are not mere speculation or opinion, but facts that have been carefully chronicled by the United States Department of Agriculture, one whose archives attest that in 1910, Black farm ownership peaked at around 16 to 19 million acres but by 2010, that number had dwindled by a whopping 90 percent!

The “why” as to the loss of Black farmland is rather simple, too, in that it was a combination of white terrorism (see the Rosewood Massacre and Tulsa Massacre and how Black lands were stolen after Blacks were lynched and scattered due to attacks from white mobs), price freezes by the USDA and local governments that paid Black farmers far less for the same goods that white farmers produced, and predatory/discriminatory lending and targeting practices that compelled many Black farmers to move to the North and Midwest to find good paying factory jobs.

(Black sharecroppers picking cotton in the early 20th Century)

This history is not hidden, mind you, but such still did not stop Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey from criticizing the Biden administration’s earmark to Black farmers by saying “This bill is not about responding to COVID. It is about exploiting the final stretch of a public health crisis in order to enact a longstanding liberal wish-list for years into the future [including] sending payments to farmers and ranchers equal to 120 percent of their borrowings, irrespective of their earnings, wealth or effects from COVID…”

Sen. Toomey’s remarks have been echoed by Tucker Carlson and other right wing journalists who have called this measure “a free handout” that will give an unfair advantage to Black farmers. The major problem with their misrepresentation is that it leads those who do not know better to overlook that the Federal government has heavily subsidized white farmers who have dominated the profession due to the aforementioned racist acts and practices!

For a quick history lesson, it is important to first remember that while President Franklin Roosevelt is loved by many Americans, especially Democrats, that his “New Deal” often had overtly discriminatory practices against Black land ownership. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created through the National Housing Act that FDR signed into law in 1934, provided Federal backing of land mortgages–for whites predominantly! Dr. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the The Century Foundation, notes that “The FHA had a manual which explicitly said that it was risky to make mortgage loans in predominantly Black areas…so as a result, the federal subsidy for home ownership went almost entirely to white people.”

Even worse, Kahlenberg further notes in his study that FDR’s administration refused to abolish the restrictive racial covenants that forbade Black land ownership in–or even too closely adjacent to–white enclaves. As such, what developed was an apartheid like reality that was made worse by banks that refused to extend lines of credit to Black farmers–and a USDA over the 60 years after FDR died that intentionally slowed the application process and the provision of funding to Black farmers seeking aid to upgrade equipment and purchase livestock. The USDA did these discriminatory acts all the while easily providing capital to white farmers who owned their land with “clear title” due to the racist practices in place by a supposedly “colorblind” Federal government.

Let it be reiterated that the formal end of the Jim Crow era did nothing to ameliorate these past wrongs plagued upon Black farmers and landowners by the Federal and state governments. More recently, when former President Donald Trump waged a trade war with China in 2018-19 over tariffs on soybeans, the Trump administration’s $28 Billion bailout of American farmers went EXCLUSIVELY to white farmers! Some will counter this point by saying, “well Hobbs, surely you don’t mean to think that Trump’s Agriculture Department sat down with the intent to withhold funds from Black farmers?” My response to that is Mr. Trump didn’t have to because the die was cast well over a century ago with regards to unequal allocation of resources to farmers according to race; the last administration simply did what the majority of its predecessors had done to prop up white businesses–at the expense of Black and other racial minority ones.

In conclusion, a true study and understanding of American history will reveal that much that is held to be universally true is a myth. When Black farmers are condescendingly told by conservatives to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” such is as fictional as Santa Claus because the boots and laces for straps were stripped by both government and private sector racist policies long ago. When Black farmers are told that the Biden earmark is “reverse discrimination against white farmers,” such is as bogus as the Easter Bunny when noting that just a year or so ago, $28 Billion in Federal subsidies were “handed out” to white farmers. This last point, the fiction that is “reverse discrimination,” is the most sinister and inane when remembering that whites have never been systematically discriminated against via governmental policies that segregated education, segregated hospitals, delivered unequal justice in the courts, allowed businesses to be stolen, whole townships razed, and access to credit to be fleeting.

To honor my sharecrop farming ancestors, I shan’t forget…

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