Debt relief for Black farmers, part of the American Rescue Plan, has been blocked by a lawsuit by white farmers who are charging “reverse discrimination.”
The issue brings up the extraordinary history of the US Department of Agriculture’s decades of denial of federal benefits to Black farmers, even after the civil rights laws of the 1960s. As scholar Pete Daniel writes,“racism circulated through federal, state, and county USDA offices, and employees at every level bent civil rights laws and subverted governmental programs in order to punish black farmers.”
Black farmers thus “suffered their most debilitating discrimination during the civil rights era when laws supposedly protected them from racist policies.” One reason is that little attention was paid to their plight in coverage of the civil rights struggle. Battles over school desegregation, public transportation and accommodations, and, of course, voting rights were news. Farmers were not.
Another reason was the massive resistance of segregationists. It’s one thing to make federal laws, but quite another to enforce them locally when those who are supposed to implement them are themselves the enforcers and beneficiaries of Jim Crow.
“The decline of black farmers after World War II contrasted dismally with their gains in the half century after emancipation when, demonstrating tremendous energy and sagacity, they negotiated a maze of race law and custom and—during the harshest years of segregation, peonage, and violence—gained land and status in southern communities.”
The USDA is extraordinarily powerful, the source of “allotments, credit, information, and access to government largess.” Formed during the Civil War, the Department’s programs were much expanded by the New Deal. From then into the 1990s, vital USDA programs like the Farmers Home Administration (FHA; later the FmHA), the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), and the Federal Extension Service (FES), “bitterly resisted demands to share power with African Americans.”
The “tracks of racism and discrimination led from local committees and agriculture offices to state offices, to land-grant schools, to experimental stations, and on to Washington.” For instance, county-level bureaucrats punished Black farmers who advocated for civil rights, registered to vote, wanted to send their children to white schools, or joined the NAACP. “Denying production credit and home loans and chipping away at acreage allotments, committees drove activist farmers off the land.”
There was, of course, much movement from farms during the twentieth century. About one third of all workers in the US labored on farms in 1900. In 1950, it was less than a fifth of all workers. Today, a tenth of America’s workforce is in agriculture, food, and related industries, but most of this the food-services sector. Farming itself comprised a mere 1.4% of the U.S. labor force in 2020.
These declines were uneven: one 1965 study found that the white farmer population declined by 28% between 1935-1959. In the same time period, the Black farmer population declined 40%.
The USDA’s abysmal track record was revealed by a class-action suit settled in 1999. Pigford v. Glickman became one of the largest civil rights settlements ever. But it only reached back to the early 1980s. Thousands of Black farmers had been plunged into debt and driven from the land before that were out of luck.
One of the plaintiffs in Pigford was Shirley Sherrod. Her father, a Georgia farmer, had been shot dead by a white farmer in 1965. An all-white grand jury brought no charges against the killer. Sherrod joined the class action suit because she and her husband were denied USDA loans that were later shown to have been given to local white farmers on very generous terms.
In 2009, Sherrod was appointed the USDA’s rural development director for Georgia, the first Black person to hold that position. But she was forced to resign in 2010 over what turned out to be a doctored video released by right-wing activists that made it seem like she she was discriminating against white farmers.