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Race and Economy

Black farmers’ lawsuit points to limited remedies for past discrimination

Savannah Maher Oct 13, 2022
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Mario Tama/Getty Images
Race and Economy

Black farmers’ lawsuit points to limited remedies for past discrimination

Savannah Maher Oct 13, 2022
Heard on:
Mario Tama/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

A group of Black and other minority farmers is suing the federal government

They say they’ve been in financial limbo since the Joe Biden administration offered them $4 billion in debt relief, but then walked that back when white farmers took the program to court, saying it discriminated against them. The program was replaced by one based on economic need.

The original program was intended to address past racial discrimination by the Department of Agriculture that led to billions of dollars in land loss for Black farmers in particular. That discrimination is well-documented, and the federal government has owned up to it. Why then is it so hard to address?

That $4 billion wasn’t going to fully compensate farmers of color, according to Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School. 

“It is a drop in the bucket if we think about the history,” he said.

The history of lending discrimination that — according to Hamilton’s research — dispossessed Black farmers of more than $326 billion worth of land in the 20th century. 

“Independent of that history, there’s also contemporary issues,” Hamilton said.

Like a 2020 COVID relief package for farmers: 99% of beneficiaries were white. Meanwhile, 0.1% were Black, according to the USDA. 

We can trace these inequities back to policies that were once considered “race-neutral,” said Joy Milligan at the University of Virginia School of Law.

“The federal government essentially participated in Jim Crow across most sectors of life,” she said.

But it’s a lot easier to create inequality with federal policy than it is to address it with the same tool, per Stanford Law’s Ralph Richard Banks.

“We have developed a scheme of constitutional law that prohibits giving benefits on the basis of race.”

That’s even to address past racist policies. The New School’s Darrick Hamilton recognizes the irony. “Despite government being complicit in the conditions that exist today,” he said.

Its tools for leveling the playing field are limited, Hamilton added.

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