Biden Is Still Failing America’s Black Farmers


When President Joe Biden came into office promising to address decades of discrimination against Black farmers, the bar for improvement could hardly be lowered.

The Trump administration had promised $26 billion to help farmers at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Only .1% – or $20.8 million – went to the 1.3% of American farmers who are Black. An earlier Trump program designed to offset the financial pain of trade sanctions against China was just as unsatisfying. On average, White farmers received $10,674 in aid, while Black farmers received about $1,074. It was also difficult to get loans during these years. In 2020, the US Department of Agriculture granted loans to 71% of White applicants in one main program; Black applicants received the same loan in only 37% of cases.

But pushback and a lawsuit from White farmers forced the Biden administration to backtrack on its promises to address those and other long-standing inequities. Billions promised to Black farmers in Biden’s first Covid relief bill were withdrawn in favor of billions to distressed farmers of any color in the Inflation Reduction Act. Now, frustrated black farmers are suing the government to do what it promised in the first place. It won’t be easy to mend fences.

In 1920 there were 925,000 Black farmers, 14% of all US farmers. Today there are about 45,000. White farmers have also declined over the past century (mainly due to farm consolidation). But this was not an equal reduction. If Black farmers faced racism at the same rate as White farmers, there would be at least 250,000 more Black farmers today.

Well-documented discrimination and racism by the US Department of Agriculture accounts for a large part of the difference. For example, in 1965, the US Commission on Civil Rights noted that Black farmers did not receive the loans and other assistance given to White farmers in similar economic circumstances.

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The consequences are an economic tragedy. In the early 1900s, Black families owned nearly 20 million acres of farmland, the largest amount of property ever owned by Black Americans. By 1997, they had lost 90% of it. According to one recent study, the lost wealth and income is at least $326 billion.

There is no recovering that wealth or what it could have made possible for generations of Black Americans. But there is a chance to get justice.

In 1997, Black farmers successfully sued the USDA for discriminatory lending between 1981 and 1996. The judgment was the largest civil rights settlement in US history to date, with $2.3 billion in claims divided in $50,000 increments to 33,256 claimants.

It was an important symbolic judgment, but it did not change much. In 2019, the Government Accounting Office found that “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers”, a category that includes Black farmers and other discriminated groups, received proportionately fewer loans and farm credit than White farmers. This year, 59% of Black farmers under the age of 40 reported challenges accessing capital to grow their businesses, compared to 41% of young American farmers of all races. Meanwhile, few farmers found their operations of an additional $50,000; that’s not enough to make a down payment on a properly used tractor.

To address these and other disparities, the Biden administration included $4 billion in debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers in its early 2021 Covid relief package. The balances could be paid to qualified farmers with certain types of USDA loans , in return for agreeing to certain binding conditions. “Debt relief gives me a jump start,” John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told me in a phone conversation. “It gives me that opportunity to finally invest and grow.” Thousands of additional Black farmers accepted and signed the deal, and invested in additional equipment and land expecting to receive the money in a few weeks.

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That money never came. Conservative legal groups filed at least 13 lawsuits arguing that the relief discriminated on the basis of race, and courts issued injunctions regarding the distribution of the relief. Many Black farmers who agreed to the debt relief terms, and invested in new land and equipment, are now in financial trouble, and some even fear foreclosure. The Biden administration supported the repeal through a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act in August, rather than risk a court ruling that could undermine other programs designed to address past discrimination.

Boyd is reeling from what he sees as a broken promise. “It’s 40 acres and a mule again,” he said, referring to the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise to cede slave lands to former slaves. Last month, he joined a group of Black farmers in a class action suit against the federal government, seeking damages over the withdrawn debt relief.

The Biden administration and congressional allies have tried to make amends. The Inflation Reduction Act created a $3.1 billion program to help “troubled borrowers” of any background, and $2.2 billion for disadvantaged farmers who can prove it. But Boyd and other Black farmers worry, among other issues, that these race-neutral provisions will ensure that more aid goes to White farmers, as the USDA has always done.

Debt relief, however delivered, is not enough to restore trust between Black farmers and the federal government. However, the Biden administration can help ensure that the process of disbursing funds to distressed farmers moves forward quickly, rather than tying it up to years of rulemaking. It can also help by prioritizing claims for thousands of Black farmers who agreed to debt relief terms in 2021, and later for farmers who previously settled class actions against the US government for discrimination.

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In the long term, the administration can enhance the success of Black farmers by improving programs designed to help small farmers and farmers in general. For decades, the USDA has favored large producers, the majority of whom are White, at the expense of smaller producers and resilience in the food supply chain. A fairer system could elevate Black growers and improve food access for all. One way to encourage a new generation of small farmers would be a loan forgiveness program aimed at Black students and professionals who go into farming. Boyd proposes a fund that could help small farmers — not just Black farmers — get the land and infrastructure to expand their operations. “White farmers get hurt, even on a small scale,” he reminds me. “But if you’re Black they treat you even worse.”

We have the seeds for a better and fairer agricultural industry. The federal government must get on with the business of planting them.

More from Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Reducing Poverty, Lack of Wealth and Income Inequality: Tyler Cowen

• A Diverse Team Below Is Much More Difficult: Noah Feldman

• What’s not on Sunak’s To Do List? Ending Racism: Pankaj Mishra

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is the author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”

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