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December 7, 2020

Justice for Black Farmers Act: A Quantum Leap Forward or a Misguided Step Back?

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On Nov. 19, 2020, Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Md., and Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act. This ambituous legislation aims to “address the history of discrimination against Black farmers” and to “prevent future discrimination” within the United States Department of Agriculture, among other objectives. The act has since been endorsed by over 100 organizations, including the National Farmers Union, a century-old union of over 200,000 family farms, and Soul Fire Farm Inc., a New York farm at the focal point of the food sovereignty and justice movement. 

The legislation has five distinct titles, arguing for broad civil rights reform within the USDA, the establishment of a land grant program, increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities, sweeping credit assistance and land retention programs and systemic agricultural reforms that prioritize socially disadvantaged farmers.

Title II, Section 203 of the Justice for Black Farmers Act has perhaps the most immediate implications for not just Black farmers, but any eligible Black individual across the country. Under a land grant program that eerily mirrors the Homestead Act of 1862, eligible Black individuals may receive 160 acres of land from the USDA at no cost. The USDA is instructed to acquire this land at “fair market value” from existing arable lands in the United States. Sections 207 to 209 of this title aim to educate, at no cost, recipients of this land grant about farms, food systems, local economies, historical injustices and anything else deemed relevant at the discretion of the educating party. Section 208 delineates grants that would be disbursed to eligible entities, such as non-profits, to conduct this “farmer training program.” Section 209 seeks to establish a national Farm Conservation Corps, which also closely parallels many existing and historical conservation corps in the United States.  

The Act also details explicit expected outcomes for the programs outlined in Title II. Between the years of 2021 and 2030, no fewer than 20,000 land grants must be made to eligible individuals annually, assuming a high enough application rate. Between these same years, at least 20,000 individuals must also be able to enroll in the Farm Conservation Corps to the “maximum extent practicable.”

This legislation arrives at the end of a year of unparalleled civil unrest, a global pandemic that exacerbated existing inequities and harrowing elections. But, the history that grounds this legislation is as old as colonized America itself. The history of discrimination within the USDA is rich, and the plight of non-white farmers ubiquituous.

Most notably, the 1999 settlement of Pigford v. Glickman, a class action lawsuit aimed at redressing discriminatory practices of the USDA particularly in reference to farm loans, became the largest civil rights settlement in history. Over 80,000 individual claimants filed by 2000, but only around 20,000 claimants actually had their claims heard. Over 20 additional lawsuits have been filed since on behalf of more than 35,000 African American farmers seeking compensation under the revised 2008 Farm Bill. By 2010, the settlement topped $1.25 billion.

A decade later, the discrimination persists. As of the 2017 census, 92.7 percent of all farmland in the U.S. was white-owned; 5.8 percent of the remaining farmland was reported as American Indian or Native Alaskan-owned, leaving only 1.5 percent of all farmland as being owned by either Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander or mixed race individuals.

The Justice For Black Farmers Act seeks to rectify these wrongs and begin to address the pervasive discrimination present in the USDA. The Act has been lauded as a “quantum leap for justice” and a “visionary piece of legislation” that indicates a “step to right the land and generational wealth loss that Black people in the United States have experienced and continue to experience.” By and far, the Act has received high praise and endorsements from a broad range of individuals and organizations. Yet, an outspoken minority still engenders opposition to the legislation. 

Chris Newman, of Sylvanaqua Farms, condemns the Act by stating that it is “so loaded with oversights, anti-solidarity and implied acceptance of settler-colonial agricultural ethics that it can’t even be viewed as incremental progress or a step in the right direction.” Newman calls the Justice for Black Farmers Act a “neo-Homestead Act” that attempts to fix a terribly broken agricultural system “at the expense of indigenous people.” Newman’s extended commentary on the Act points out innumerable flaws, including the racism inherent in addressing the plight of Black individuals while neglecting to mention other groups notoriously discriminated against, as well as the folly of diverting massive funds to nonprofits who are supposed to run, with minimal oversight, farmer education programs. The Act further fails to address local economies and expectations for the quality of land to be disbursed through Title II.

While the efficacy of the Justice for Black Farmers Act remains unclear, one common thread becomes transparent: Our modern agricultural system engenders horrific inequities and discrimination. Change is needed, but whether this proposed legislation acutely embodies this change is yet to be understood.

Brianna Johnson is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at baj56@cornell.edu.