Black farmers at risk of extinction fight over $ 5 billion in promised aid

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Congressional aid to disadvantaged farmers which was authorized at the start of the year as part of President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: Progressives Should Celebrate Passage of Budget, Stay Focused on Fight Officials are still looking for parents of 337 separated children, court record says former US lawyer in Atlanta brutal resignation due to failure to peddle Trump’s election fraud claim MOREThe $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill is being challenged in court by white farmers, preventing an estimated $ 5 billion from reaching black farmers who desperately need financial help.

Five months have passed since President Biden enacted his sweeping US bailout, which included funds to help socially disadvantaged farmers – including about 25 percent self-identify as Black – in an effort to address the government’s long history of discrimination against black farmers and those of color.

But soon after that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency prepared to send debt relief letters to eligible farmers. in May, the movement was met prosecutions white farmers and groups who argued that the eligibility requirements were discriminatory.

A Wisconsin judge granted a restraining order, while a Florida judge issued a preliminary injunction. Both of these actions have left Aid in limbo as the litigation unfolds.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales, appointed by the George W. Bush administration that made the Florida-based ruling against the debt relief program, said the main section of the relief bill Coronavirus on Farmer Relief “does not appear to contain any of the hallmarks of a race-based and narrowly tailored affirmative action plan.

She said instead, it “seems to create an inflexible, racially discriminatory agenda.”

But for many black farmers, time is running out.

John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, has said many of its members “cannot stand” during a long legal battle over aid.

“I would like to see a more aggressive approach from the Department of Justice and explain the painful history of the discrimination that has been made against black farmers in this country,” said the third generation farmer.

“There is discrimination, and it needs to be recognized, and it needs to be dealt with in court. “

Black communities have been hit hardest during the pandemic, and Boyd says the same applies to farmers, with many having to find additional jobs while federal aid is not delivered.

“They take a second job and say, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s going on with that, but we still have a small bill, we still have a mortgage, insurance, all these things that have to be paid’ ‘ , Boyd said.

One of those farmers is Lester Bonner, a multigenerational farmer from Dinwiddie County, Virginia.

Bonner, 74, who typically sells pigs, soybeans and hay, said he was relying on money from the coronavirus aid program to service his approximately $ 20,000 debt and to pay off seeds and general improvements to his farm.

But the funding never came.

“I had to cut back. I could not do anything. I needed materials. I need buildings, ”Bonner said,“ and taking my social security… I really couldn’t buy anything because they took everything I had to try and pay off that loan. So, I could not develop the farm hardly.

Bonner said his situation is not unique and noted that many other black farmers in his area have left the industry over the years due to similar obstacles.

“Very few black farmers remained in Dinwiddie County,” he said.

In some ways, the 2021 aid freeze for black farmers is a continuation of a decades-long struggle to receive their fair share of federal farm subsidies and assistance.

For example, the first months of the pandemic saw the Trump administration launch the coronavirus food assistance program through the USDA. In total, $ 9.2 billion was distributed, with white farmers receiving more than 95% of that aid.

Likewise, when Trump’s White House subsidized U.S. farm losses in 2018 due to the U.S.-China trade war, white farmers received 99 percent of what amounted to billions of dollars. aids.

Lack of sufficient government assistance, combined with discriminatory practices during the 20th century, contributed to the decline in the number of black farmers in the United States.

In 1920, there were over 900,000 black farmers, representing about 14 percent of all farm workers.

According to USDA data, there were around 35,000 black-owned farms in 2017, or 1.7% of the country’s 2 million farms. White-owned farms, by contrast, accounted for over 96 percent of all farms.

Data from 2017 also showed that black farms were well below average in most income-related categories, receiving only about half of the government payments that an average American farm receives.

“When we were 14 percent, we weren’t getting the money,” Boyd said. “And now we’re threatened with extinction, and we still don’t get the money. And I think that’s discriminatory in itself.

Black farmers sued the USDA in the 1990s, arguing that racial discrimination caused them to lose important federal aid such as the farm from 1981 to 1996.

The landmark class action lawsuit – Pigford v. USDA – was ultimately settled for $ 1 billion. As a result of the settlement, black farmers who submitted a claim were expected to receive payments of $ 50,000.

After complications led many black farmers to miss payments, a second Pigford settlement, worth $ 1.25 billion, was reached in 2010.

However, the large debt owed by many black farmers has never been resolved, in large part because of claims that have not been processed and others that have been denied. And the discrimination that created the inequalities in the first place has persisted.

“That’s when they were supposed to write off your debt. But they never did. I went bankrupt three times trying to pay it off … [and] when we couldn’t pay anymore, they started taking money out of our social security checks, ”Bonner said.

Agriculture secretary Tom vilsackTom Vilsack USDA: Farm-to-School Programs Help Schools Serve Healthier Meals NIGHT MONEY: Home to Pass Debt Ceiling Bill MORE, who was head of the USDA during the second Pigford settlement, now occupies the same role under Biden.

Boyd, a vocal critic of Vilsack, said the problems with the 2021 payments are essentially history repeating itself.

“On my last call with Secretary Vilsack, this is what I explained to him: you know, white farmers always manage to get the money, and the money is apparently somehow hidden from black people,” said Boyd.

“It’s a perfect example of that. We’ve got something that’s in the law in writing, and now we can’t get it. … The secretary took too long to do his job. … It’s frustrating and we need new leadership at USDA.

When asked about the lawsuits challenging the aid, as well as Boyd’s remarks about Vilsack and the agency, the USDA referred The Hill to the Department of Justice. The DOJ did not return a request for comment.

Adrienne Jones, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who is also its pre-law director, said the Biden administration and Congress must carefully coordinate their response to legal challenges, calling the current climate a “dangerous environment.” to have that stuff. programs blocked by the court.

“They absolutely have to think creatively … are there ways to solve this problem without taking it to the Supreme Court,” she said, noting that the court “seems particularly interested in setting up civil rights programs or affirmative action programs “.

Under legislation enacted by Biden, Jones said she believes the chances are “slim” that black farmers will get financial relief. But she said discussions around the $ 3.5 trillion reconciliation package Democrats are trying to push through Congress should certainly include the ongoing legal battle that blocks aid to black farmers.

She also said she didn’t think it was a coincidence that a number of court challenges have been brought against the debt relief program given political tensions around race, especially after months. widespread protests against police brutality last year after the murder of George Floyd.

“Filing a discrimination claim at any point in American history is problematic… But today, I mean, the courts are extremely conservative, at least at the federal level,” she said, “ and the law has changed so agendas of the kind we saw in the 1960s are just not so viable.

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