Black farmers are still at a crossroads and a new lawsuit is the latest in a long history of their fight for justice against a government that continues to fail to deliver. President Joe Biden promised relief in the American Rescue Plan 2021 to correct decades of racism many farmers experienced with the USDA. White farmers quickly cried reverse racism before a dime could be spent.
That funding, tied up in court, was recently repealed. Tired of waiting for more broken promises, Black farmers filed a class action suit against the U.S. government claiming breach of contract. The lawsuit, dated Oct. 7, says the four plaintiffs “risk losing their farms and their livelihoods as a result of the U.S. government’s wrongful conduct,” reported several news outlets.
“Just like we were promised 40 acres and a mule 150 years ago,” Attorney Benjamin Crump told The Final Call, “They broke that promise to the Black farmers and the Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War to preserve the union.” He filed the lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
“Rescinding on promises is what they’re doing to Black farmers today. The American Rescue Plan promised $5 billion to Black farmers to make up for the historical discrimination handed to the Black farmers over decades,” the civil rights attorney noted.
“The USDA rescinded that promise, and that is not something we can allow to happen.
In fact, what’s different from 40 acres and a mule, 150 years ago, and what they did in 2022 when they repealed the act, is that we have a binding contract with these farmers who signed. They relied on the promise of the government. We intend to hold the government accountable for breach of contract unless they compensate these farmers with debt relief.”
The class action suit filed by Mr. Crump in October seeks to hold the government accountable for its promise of 120 percent of direct and guaranteed loans for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers with outstanding balances as of January 1, 2021. The repeal of this act broke the government’s promise and left many farmers in foreclosure.
“The class action suit would bring a lot of relief for Black, and other farmers of color who were promised 120 percent debt relief,” John Wesley Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmer’s Association, a nonprofit representing Black farmers and their families, told The Final Call. “Debt relief of 120 percent can make the difference in me getting my deed released from USDA and some sort of patchwork loan issue where they bring your loan up to date,” he said.
“We are not interested in that. We want what they promised, 120 percent debt relief, 100 percent write off and 20 percent for the taxes. That will bring a whole lot of relief for Black farmers and other farmers of color. The people who want debt relief actually have farms. We want to make sure we do everything we can to keep them on the farm. That’s the first piece of it. The lawsuit also addresses those farmers who have been discriminated against. We are looking at the court stepping in and bringing some resolve for Black farmers who have been discriminated against as well,” Mr. Boyd explained.
“Secretary Vilsack had 22 months to start paying somebody in that process” he said, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack. “He hasn’t done that, which is why we asked for court oversight on that issue.”
The government replaced the funding for Black farmers in August with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. This new act sidesteps White farmers’ complaints. Any farmer of any race in financial distress and who has a direct or guaranteed loan with the USDA is eligible for relief, including loan modifications, under the new $3.1 billion plan.
There is another pot of money, $2.2 billion, that is available to anyone who has experienced discrimination through USDA lending programs before Jan. 1, 2021. This could also include White women.
“They’re trying to change the deal,” argued Mr. Crump. “The math in this new plan doesn’t add up. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, they promised $5 billion to pay a 100 percent of the farmer’s debt and give them 20 percent more to deal with taxes. That’s what the promise was. Now, under the Inflation Reduction Act, what they’re talking about is giving loan modifications and restructured laws,” he continued.
“That still means no matter how you couch it, I went from not owing anything based on your promise to now owing thousands of dollars that I was in debt for. However, now I have new penalties and fees that are going to come with a modified loan. That’s not fair, that’s not equitable, that’s not acceptable,” argued the attorney.
“The White farmers got debt relief over and over again. Their farms were paid off, their debt was paid. This happened several times when the Black farmers have never gotten debt relief from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).”
Black farmers had nearly one million farms in 1920. They were 14 percent of all farmers. Fast forward to 1997 when they had lost 90 percent of their land. During this same time period, White farmers lost only two percent of their land. By 2017, there were just 35,470 Black-owned farms, representing 1.7 percent of all farms.
Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and representative of the Justice for Black Farmers Group, explained to the media that USDA Secretary Vilsack had done nothing to help Black farmers.
“The amount of wealth loss could be in the trillions of dollars,” he said. “We’ve had administration after administration, president after president, and Congress after Congress do nothing. Secretary Vilsack was a disaster even when he worked under President Obama, who wasn’t good to us,” said Mr. Lucas.
The next steps for Black farmers is a day in court for a judge to rule on the constitutionality of their claims.
“White farmers are trying to say it’s reverse discrimination,” said Mr. Crump. “Talk about hypocrisy. The issue is detrimental reliance. Once you make a binding contract with me and the central terms of a contract, benefit and detriment are proven, then it is a contract that the parties are bound to maintain,” he said.
“The court will decide if it’s a contract that Black farmers had a right to rely on. If you can’t rely on the word of the government, then how can we trust anything that they put forth?”
U.S. Senators Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter in September to Secretary Vilsack requesting rapid implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act funding.
“Thousands of USDA borrowers are struggling to make ends meet and are barely holding on to their farms, and it is critical that USDA provide assistance to these farmers prior to the expiration of the current USDA foreclosure moratorium,” wrote the Senators. “Now that Congress has provided USDA these critical resources, it is our expectation that distressed farmers with USDA direct and guaranteed loans will be able to remain on their land.”
They urged the USDA, “to quickly begin the selection process for non-governmental entities to administer Section 22007 of the IRA, which will provide much needed financial assistance to Black farmers and others who have suffered discrimination through USDA’s farm lending programs.”