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Est. April 5, 2002
May 13, 2021 - Issue 865
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The lawsuits being brought by white farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the department's plan to provide support for black farmers, whose land and farms have been stolen through generations is giving the nation an idea of how difficult it will be to achieve some form of reparations.

The USDA's program provides some $4 billion for what the department calls “socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, or forest landowners,” to somewhat compensate for the fraudulent or outright theft of black-owned farms and land throughout much of the 20th Century.

The racism that caused about 920,000 black farmers to lose their farms was the result of routine abuse of the power of the local USDA committees made up of local white farmers, who were carrying out the programs of the USDA in their counties or areas. It seems inconceivable that the numbers of black farmers could drop from nearly one million in the 1920s to about 17,000 in the mid-1980s, without some form of drastic intervention by other than "market forces," which were hitting all farmers throughout the century.

The drastic intervention was the desire of the local committees across the Black Belt South to see to the demise of black farmers, much of whose land would be valuable to the white farmers in their counties. So it happened that the local committees could act with impunity to delay and deny loans, seed, fertilizer, and other necessities of farming operations to black farmers, to the extent that they could not make a living and were forced to give up their farms and, ultimately, sell out to white farmers or be foreclosed. In any event, the black-owned farms ended up in the hands of white farmers.

President Biden's American Rescue Plan included the money to forgive loans and provide assistance to farmers who have been historically left out of most programs. That included not only black farmers, but brown farmers and indigenous farmers, ranchers, and landowners. USDA's attempt to make slight recompense for the wrongs that had been done routinely to minority farmers and ranchers has been met with cries of "discrimination" from white farmers, who feel that "reverse discrimination" is what is happening to them. The primary question for them is: "Where were you when the land was being stolen from black farmers over the entire last century?" There was no cry from white farmers that black and other minority farmers were being defrauded and cheated out of their land over the past hundred years.

Some of the white farmers who would complain about being left out of the rescue plan were the beneficiaries of the former president's ridiculous trade wars with China, in particular. He set aside billions of dollars to compensate them for the loss of sales to China and other customers of agricultural commodities that white farmers produce. The Trump administration called that "rescue plan" the Market Facilitation Program, which directed about $24 billion to farmers. About 99.5 percent of that money went to white farmers. It's easy to see that there was little left for minority farmers in that program. Yet, those same farmers are whining about being left out of Biden's rescue plan.

Last year, USDA provided $9.2 billion through its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to attempt to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on farmers. Again, most of the money went to white farmers, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found that almost 97 percent of the funds in CFAP had been allocated to white farmers. White farmers received on average eight times more from those funds ($3,398) than the average black farmer ($422).

John Boyd, president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, has said, in light of the generations of bias in USDA programs and general bias and racism which caused black farmers to lose their land and farms, that black farmers are on the brink of extinction. They cannot survive under the conditions that have prevailed over the past century. Biden's approximately $10 billion rescue plan, about $5 billion of which will go to black farmers, is a small step toward compensating them for the loss of their land and farms.

But the nation's right-wing politicians don't see it that way. Senator Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., has raised the alarm bell, claiming that the rescue of black and minority farmers is tantamount to reparations. In doing so, he is paying his dues to the former president, who he once criticized as of too low character to serve as president. Since then, he has become one of the former president's most vocal sycophants. In denouncing the Biden rescue plan, he likely believes that he is doing the bidding of Trump, whose racist impulses would never consider a plan like Biden's.

Minority farmers and ranchers have a tough time staying on the land and producing the food that we eat, but there are plenty of them who will not give up, no matter what the obstacles they face. The main one, though, remains structural racism and its odious results. The lawsuits that have been initiated on behalf of some white farmers certainly demonstrate the difficulty that the U.S. has in coming face-to-face with its racist past. It is the nation's racist present that is the problem and it is clear to anyone who will look with a clear eye.

A national apology for the treatment of black citizens and all minorities is due and reparations need to follow. There will be reconciliation if there is goodwill among the dominant classes, then followed by reparations, in whatever form they take. Some committees and commissions exist now that have drawn up proposals for reparations, but there is yet to be such an agency of the Congress or any of the state legislatures. Biden is prepared to support a "study" of reparations, but the form it will take has yet to be revealed.

Judging by the response to Biden's rescue plan for black farmers, however, the subject of reparations will be very touchy. The response we're seeing, lawsuits based on “reverse discrimination,” are likely only the tip of the iceberg of racism, when it comes to paying for past crimes. The longer these crimes are suppressed in the history and myths of “American exceptionalism,” the more virulent will be the infections that eventually will surface. Better to face facts and the truth now. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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