The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and fall drew attention to structural racism in the United States, with a focus on local law enforcement and corporate policies. Left unaddressed was the federal government’s pivotal role in pushing generations of Black farmers off the land. Last month, a group of Democratic U.S. Senators introduced new legislation that would help right some of the wrongs. Cargill is among industry stakeholders that seem prepared to act in support, but pitfalls remain.
The practices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the past 100 years should lay to rest any doubt that structural racism is a real phenomenon with existential consequences for Black people and other people of color.
Racial discrimination at USDA has been the subject of numerous studies and reports as well as lawsuits over the years. In 2019 the Center for American Progress (CAP) summarized in a report how USDA played a leading role in decimating the ranks of Black farmers throughout the 20th century and into the Trump administration.
“The authors found that black farmers have had less access to credit and less access to extension programs than their white counterparts, preventing black farmers from modernizing and scaling up their farms as white farmers have done,” the think tank noted.
As CAP observed, at the beginning of the 20th century approximately 14 percent of U.S. farmers were black. By 2012, the number was less than 2 percent, and entire rural communities have suffered the ripple effects.
“The loss of black farmland has had a profound impact on rural black communities, which today suffer from severe economic challenges, among them a poverty rate twice that of rural white communities,” CAP reported.
Although discrimination at USDA long predated the Trump administration, the former president’s trade war with China exacerbated challenges faced by Black farmers and underscored their inability to obtain the same federal resources provided to white farmers.
In 2019 John Boyd, a fourth generation Black farmer who is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), testified to Congress about the impact of former President Trump’s trade war with China. He charged that Trump’s bailout policies for U.S. farmers disproportionately favored white male farmers.
The Trump administration “chose to apply the same broken rules that have funneled farm subsidies to the biggest farms for decades. These rules are especially unfair to African American, Latino and Asian American farmers, who tend to have smaller operations than white farmers – and are less likely to be eligible for government farm supports at all,” Boyd testified.
Boyd charged that he and many other eligible small farmers, were delayed and obstructed in receiving assistance. He also charged that the USDA and Trump made no effort to conduct outreach or provide resources to Black and small farmers hurt by the trade war.
“As black farmers, we have a long history of being shut out of help from the USDA. That department has a well-documented pattern over many decades of treating black farmers poorly, resulting in slow, denied, or delayed help compared to other farmers,” Boyd concluded.
President Joe Biden took office on a pledge to dismantle longstanding structural barriers to racial equality in the U.S., and his ability to rally support in Congress will soon be put to the test.
Last month, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tina Smith (D-MN), Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced the introduction of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, described as “landmark legislation aimed at addressing and correcting historic discrimination within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in federal farm assistance and lending.”
The bill was originally introduced in 2020 by Senator Booker, who underscored the “direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century.”
Last month’s announcement by the Senate co-sponsors also included a statement from Boyd. He noted that the new bill provides for engineering more accountability and oversight into USDA moving forward, in addition to enacting immediate assistance in the form of debt relief and land restoration to redress past wrongs.
The organization EWG (formerly Environmental Working Group) also issued a joint statement with Boyd in support of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, drawing attention to other provisions of the bill that deal with assistance in settling land inheritance and other succession issues. The bill also establishes a land grant program to provide new opportunities for aspiring Black farmers to enter the business.
The land grant program would be supported with paid apprenticeships for disadvantaged young adults, and with technical and legal assistance from the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other advocates. HBCUs would also receive additional funding to expand their agricultural programs.
“By making an unprecedented investment in training through historically Black colleges and universities and groups like the National Black Farmers Association, the Justice for Black Farmers Act will ensure that Black farmers have the tools they need to succeed,” Boyd and Faber concluded.
In addition, the bill provides more resources for all disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. That includes reforms related to food system issues, with particular attention on the influence of multinational corporations on the meat packing industry.
The Justice for Black Farmers Act will be a significant step forward if it becomes law, but it is only part of the solution to the impact of systematic racism on Black farmers. To the extent that corporate stakeholders have had a hand in fostering generations-long discrimination against Black farmers, they have a responsibility to help undo some of the damage.
In doing so, corporate leaders must also plan to address discrimination in their own history, or they will risk being accused of moving forward without addressing past wrongs.
For example, last September John Deere announced a new coalition with the National Black Growers Council and other partners in support of Black land succession, only to face reaffirmation of a boycott by NBFA over allegations of discriminatory behavior.
For that matter, the Deere announcement carefully avoided any mention of structural racism, choosing instead to describe “work needed to improve the livelihoods of Black farmers with a particular emphasis on the preservation of heirs' property.”
On February 25 Cargill also announced an initiative in support of Black farmers in partnership with the National Black Growers Council. Apparently, Cargill learned some lessons from the NBFA boycott, because it fills in some of the blanks left by the Deere coalition.
Rather than skirting the issue of structural racism, the Cargill announcement draws a direct connection between the nation’s roots in Black enslavement and the persistence of structural racism up to the present day.
“Like many industries, agriculture is facing a racial equity problem,” the announcement begins. “Traced back to slavery in the U.S., systemic injustices involving property rights, financing and other exclusionary practices persist today for Black farmers who make up less than 2 percent of the country’s 3.4 million farmers.”
In the announcement, Cargill’s general counsel and Chief Compliance Officer Anna Richo also emphasizes that the response must match the scope of the problem.
“Racism is systemic, so our approach to addressing it must also be systemic. The status quo is not acceptable. We must do more in food and agriculture to invest in the Black community,” Richo explains.
In another apparent diversion from the Deere approach, Cargill’s new Black Farmer Equity Initiative, which also includes the organization 100 Ranchers, will begin by educating itself on the issues.
“As a first step, the partners will convene listening sessions with Black farmers, ranchers and producers, to map barriers and prioritize ways to improve market access and financial inclusion, sustainable agricultural practices, support next-generation agriculture leaders and advocate for policies that advance equity in agriculture,” Cargill explains.
Cargill’s ground-up approach appears designed to avoid the conflict that has tripped up Deere, though that remains to be seen. The real test will be whether or not Cargill, Deere, and other industry influencers step up and lobby in support of the Justice for Black Farmers Act.
Image credit: Shutterstock
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.
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